The operators of the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant say a new federal report gives them their best rating yet, but a local citizens group maintains the facility is not operated at high standards.
The report, issued Oct. 16 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says thatalthough the plant operator, Philadelphia Electric Co., has been operating the facility "safely and conservatively," improvements are notcoming quickly enough.
The federal evaluation, conducted between June 1990 and August 1991, found that the company needs to improve surveillance procedures that monitor radiation at power plant, in York County, Pennsylvania.
The agency report noted: "Personnel errors, procedure weakness and lack of attention to detail continued to be persistent problems. . . . As a result, performance improvement efforts were slowed and there was no consistent trend in the overall level of performance."
The NRC study was aimed at monitoring progress at the plant since the agency ordered Peach Bottom shut down between March 1987 and April 1989,after operators were found to be sleeping on the job and plant security was extremely lax.
Last year, the Peach Bottom plant was namedthe third "worst" nuclear facility in the United States by the anti-nuclear group, Public Citizen.
But PECO said the NRC report gave the Peach Bottom plant its "highest performance ratings ever."
Among the strengths the report noted at the plant: personnel development programs, improved operator training, and self-assessment programs that identify areas of program and personnel performance in need of improvement.
"While we are pleased that the NRC has recognized that Peach Bottom was safely and conservatively operated and that we initiate comprehensive self-assessment, we are concerned with the apparent slowing of our rate of improvement and we recognize that we must now focus on improving our follow-up to these assessments in order to reach the next level of performance," Donald B. Miller, a Philadelphia Electric vice president, said in a prepared statement.
"The public's health and safety will always be our top priority," he said.
To the Peach Bottom Alliance, a group that monitors the plant, the NRC report means members will have to keep a close watch on the plant, which is on the Susquehanna River less than 15 miles north of Bel Air.
"This just confirms our worries," said Dennis L. Hiebert, a Bel Airresident and member of the alliance. "That's why we do extra monitoring. We feel they weren't keeping surveillance.
In the NRC report,Peach Bottom received the highest possible marks for "emergency preparedness" and "security and safeguards" -- two of seven categories reviewed by the agency.
The facility met minimum NRC standards in the remaining five categories -- maintenance and surveillance, engineering and technical support, safety assessment and quality verification, radiological controls and plant operations.
Because of concern over long-term, low-level radiation from Peach Bottom, the alliance set up 10 Geiger counters in Harford and Cecil counties in Maryland andin York and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania two years ago.
Thealliance is concerned because researchers have linked exposure to low-level radiation to cancer, birth defects and genetic damage.
Philadelphia Electric and the environmental departments of Maryland and Pennsylvania also monitor radiation in the Peach Bottom area.
Hiebert noted that the monitors haven't recorded radiation at a hazardouslevel in the two years they have been installed. Hiebert and his wife, Carol, have a monitor at their home.
Philadelphia Electric spokesman Bill Jones said citizens groups have formed in areas of other nuclear power plants, although most groups don't operate their own monitoring equipment.
"But we certainly encourage it," Jones said. "We feel that the more people independently monitoring Peach Bottom, they'll see there's no radiation coming from the plant."
The alliance checks its monitors daily, giving the group immediate information on radiation levels, Hiebert said. The group provides reports to Philadelphia Electric and the NRC.
Philadelphia Electric and the Maryland and Pennsylvania environmental departments issue monthly reports from their radiation monitors.
"We remember Three Mile Island, where people weren't notified until it was too late," Hiebert said, referring to the Pennsylvania nuclear power plant whose reactor core nearly melted down in 1979.
Peach Bottom, one of the oldest nuclear power plants in the country, has been operating for 17 years. Philadelphia Electric has a license to run Peach Bottom until 2009, Jones said.
Hiebert, a mechanical engineer, said the alliance is concerned about what will be done with radioactive waste from the plant when Philadelphia Electric closes the facility.
"Even when you close the plant down, it's going to remain radioactive for thousands of years," Hiebert said. "There's no place to ship (radioactive waste). Nobody wants it in their backyard."
Jean Ewing, a Darlington resident who has been a member of the alliance for about 15 years, said she's surprised more people aren't concerned about the nuclear facility, given the interest in the environment.
When at a grocery store, Ewing said her northern Harford County neighbors often stop her to talk about the plant and the alliance.
"But they'll pick up the rest of theirgroceries and move on," Ewing said. "It makes us very uneasy that people don't seem to be worried."