When he retired after 26 years as an investigator with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Office of the Inspector General, George Mulley thought his final report was one of his best.
Mulley had spent months looking into why a pipe carrying cooling water at the Byron nuclear plant in Illinois had rusted so badly that it burst. His report cited lapses by a parade of NRC inspectors over six years and systemic weaknesses in the way the NRC monitors corrosion.
But rather than accept Mulley's findings, the inspector general's office rewrote them. The revised report shifted much of the blame to the plant's owner, Exelon, instead of NRC procedures. And instead of designating it a public report and delivering it to Congress, as is the norm, the office put it off-limits. A reporter obtained it only after filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan has thrust the NRC's role as industry overseer squarely in the spotlight, but another critical player in U.S. nuclear safety is the NRC's Office of the Inspector General, an independent agency that serves as watchdog to the watchdog.
Now, Mulley and one other former OIG employee have come forth with allegations that the inspector general's office buried the critical Byron report and dropped an investigation into whether the NRC is relying on outdated methods to predict damage from an aircraft crashing into a plant.
The inspector general's office, they assert, has shied away from challenging the NRC at exactly the wrong time, with many of the country's 104 nuclear power plants aging beyond their 40-year design life and with reactor meltdowns at Fukushima rewriting the definition of a catastrophic accident.
"We're in the nuclear power business. It's not a trivial business; it's public health and safety," said Mulley, who won the agency's top awards and reviewed nearly every major investigation the office conducted before he retired as the chief investigator three years ago.
"We have to have somebody that's going to look over the NRC's shoulder and make sure they were fulfilling their obligations," he said.
Inspector General Hubert T. Bell declined to comment, but Joseph McMillan, the assistant inspector general for investigations, said the office has continued to vigorously pursue cases. He confirmed that the aircraft crash case has been closed but said it was proper. Regarding the Byron case, McMillan acknowledged disagreements but said: "I stand by the work we have done."
The U.S. nuclear industry can point to an enviable safety record -- no member of the public has ever been injured by an accident at a plant. Nonetheless, critics point to issues like the NRC's drawn-out effort to enforce fire rules as evidence that the five-member commission and the agency it runs are too close to the industry.
The inspector general's office has traditionally filled a key oversight role, conducting dozens of investigations that have changed how the NRC regulates nuclear waste, fire protection and security, among other things. Its regular reports to Congress cover waste, fraud and agency performance.
Many federal agencies have similar independent offices to ferret out wrongdoing and improve efficiency. The NRC's was established in 1989 and has been led for the past 15 years by Bell, who was appointed by President Clinton after nearly three decades in the Secret Service.
'Everything Seems to Die'
In the office's history, Mulley has left a big mark.
For years, he documented how the NRC dropped the ball on the handling of nuclear fuel and security in nuclear plants. His reports on defective fire barriers led to congressional hearings and ultimately to a complete overhaul of the agency's fire protection regulations.