The senior federal regulator leading the inspection of a troubled nuclear reactor near Omaha is the target of a complaint to Congress over his handling of the reactor's problems.
A letter on Nuclear Regulatory Commission letterhead alleges that Troy Pruett pushed staff to downplay problems at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station and created a “corrosive environment.”
The letter was signed “Region IV Staff” and was sent to to U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., a senior member of the House committee that oversees the regulatory commission.
“These actions (by Pruett) have resulted in a chilled environment that dissuades inspectors from identifying safety issues that may be challenged by regional management,” the letter states.
Furthermore, the letter says the bonus system for senior regulators is a “significant deterrent” to aggressive work by subordinates.
That's because the bonus policy penalizes senior officials whose findings against utilities get overturned on appeal.
Fort Calhoun, 20 miles north of Omaha, has been shut down for more than a year because of problems related to last summer's flooding and a June 2011 electrical fire. It is owned by the Omaha Public Power District.
OPPD spokesman Jeff Hanson called the Markey letter an internal issue for the commission.
“Our focus is on restarting the plant and returning Fort Calhoun Station to high-performing status,” he said.
The letter is likely to further erode public confidence in the oversight of nuclear plants, said a Sierra Club attorney who has monitored conditions at Fort Calhoun.
“I think this indicates the problems at Fort Calhoun are more serious than we've been led to believe,” said Wally Taylor of Cedar Rapids. “There really needs to be a thorough, outside independent investigation into Fort Calhoun.”
The letter's key example of the difficult work environment at the regulator's regional office involved Fort Calhoun. According to the letter, regional technical staffers and Pruett had “contentious” disagreements over how severely to reprimand OPPD for the June fire.
Staffers pushed for a red finding, the most severe of four color-coded citations against a nuclear reactor. It means that a problem has high potential to compromise safety.
According to the letter, Pruett argued that a lesser finding should be issued to avoid creating a “political environment” that would make his work more difficult.
Pruett is deputy division director of reactor projects and leads the special federal panel assessing when Fort Calhoun can resume operations. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The letter alleges that Pruett was unconvinced of the need for a red finding and directed NRC staff to do additional, allegedly wasteful studies that took “several man-weeks of effort.”
The letter then says Pruett missrepresented the regional staff's concerns when he traveled to NRC headquarters to discuss Fort Calhoun's problems. He allegedly told headquarters' personnel that his staff agreed with his determination that the fire at Fort Calhoun was not a significant safety issue.
“The willingness of Mr. Pruett to intentionally distort the fact to achieve his personal goals is irrefutable and they constitute an irreconcilable breach of integrity,” according to the letter.
Last month, the commission found that a red finding was merited.
The fire occurred in the electrical panel that guarantees electricity to the plant's spent fuel pools. As a result of the fire, the pool was without electricity for about 90 minutes. According to federal regulators and OPPD, the pool had more than 80 hours of residual cooling ability, so public safety was not at risk.
Several things about the fire disturbed inspectors, including: faulty design and maintenance of the panel contributed to the fire; OPPD workers were unable to quickly get into the electrical room; and OPPD was tardy in notifying emergency officials.
Nuclear reactors are clumped into regions for oversight. Both OPPD's Fort Calhoun and the Nebraska Public Power District's Cooper Nuclear Station are overseen by Region IV of the NRC, which is based in Arlington, Texas.
Reactors have two federal inspectors who work on-site, and the rest, such as Pruett, work at regional offices.
John Kirkland, the senior resident inspector at Fort Calhoun, said that he has had no problems with Pruett and that at “absolutely” no time did Pruett push him to soft-pedal an inspection.
“I'll be honest with you, Troy and I got along very well,” Kirkland said.
If the problems occurred as the letter characterizes, they came during meetings Kirkland didn't attend, he said.
“The thing you need to realize, is that if Troy did disagree on the character of a finding — that's why we have an open collaborative work environment — it still came out red,” he said.
Lara Uselding, a spokeswoman for the regional office of the regulatory commission, issued a brief comment Thursday:
“Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey sent a letter to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko requesting the agency investigate a number of allegations regarding a manager in its Region IV office in Arlington, Texas. The agency will review the issues raised in the letter and respond to Congress.”
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