In my experience, there is absolutely no way to know what is going on at a nuclear power plant without basically living there, and for a long time, probably permanently. These facilities are a complicated mix of people and technology that can’t be adequately assessed via inspections.
Having people in residence is the only feasible means of assessing whether equipment works as it is supposed to, and whether proper procedures are in place and people there understand them and actually follow them, be they emergency drills or normal procedures. Inspections based upon interviews and/or reviewing documents and/or looking around can’t get past what one might call the fog of work. And too much fog leading to an accident at a nuclear power plant will ruin your whole day, and then some.
WaPo reports re recent NRC inspections “over the past two months”:
An agency spokesman said that problems were identified at less than one-third of the 104 U.S. nuclear reactors.
Inspectors have found problems with equipment, training and procedures at some U.S. nuclear reactors, but none serious enough to undermine confidence in the plants’ continued safe operation, federal regulators said Thursday.
Really, it’s just impossible to learn what truly goes on without observing operations over an extended period of time. What is necessary is to have one or two (or maybe more) independent nuclear safety engineers working different shifts, on a permanent basis, at all the nuclear plants in the country. Let’s do the math. Suppose they each receive a full package, with benefits, of say $200,000 per year, and each US plant has two of them. That comes to 104 x 2 x $200,000 = $ 41.6 Million dollars a year. The accident at Three Mile Island cost about $1 Billion for the clean-up alone (not to mention the cost of the facility), so that’s a small price to pay for some serious insurance going way beyond an inspection regime.