We are shocked

Who would think that allowing the nuclear industry to operate virtually unimpeded could result in low safety standards and the potential for a major accident?

U.S. nuclear power plants operate with known safety problems because of inadequate federal inspections, faulty maintenance and poor design, concludes a report Thursday by U.S. scientists.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigated 14 safety lapses at these plants last year, an error rate that’s “high for a mature industry,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental and nuclear watchdog group. Its report, prepared before Friday’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan triggered a nuclear crisis, is the first in an annual series on NRC performance.

“If there is a common theme among last year’s near‐misses, it’s that none would have happened had prior warning flags been heeded rather than discounted or ignored,” said report author David Lochbaum. He said the NRC, an independent agency that oversees safety at the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors, inspects about 5% of plant operations.

The report comes as President Obama ordered a “comprehensive review” Thursday of U.S. nuclear power plants. He said they’re designed to withstand major natural disasters, but the U.S. had a “responsibility” to learn the lessons from the Japanese nuclear crisis.

The scientists’ report warns that ignoring safety flaws can snowball into catastrophes, adding known problems triggered the near meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania 1979 and a worse disaster, an actual meltdown, at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986.