The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Fukushima task force has confronted the commissioners with a central quandary of their mission: When are nuclear plants safe enough?
The six-person Near-Term Task Force that dived into the implications of Japan's nuclear disaster concluded in its July 12 report that "continued operation and continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety."
Then the task force followed with a dozen major recommendations, some of which would order nuclear plant operators to strengthen defenses against extreme flooding or earthquakes when necessary and to harden vents that would carry away explosive hydrogen gas from damaged reactor cores in the two types of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. They must also extend plants' capabilities to protect reactors and spent fuel pools in an extended blackout of primary and backup electric power.
"On the one hand there's that reassurance," NRC Commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki said, referring to the "imminent risk" statement by the task force, which briefed NRC commissioners yesterday on their report.
On the other hand, she said the task force appeared to conclude that the rules and policies that assure adequate protection of the public aren't sufficient and need to be expanded. "I think that's a real change in our regulatory framework."
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko wants to hold a series of public sessions on the task force proposals and then get a commission vote on the twelve recommendations by Oct. 7. His overall reaction to the task force report is clear. "They did a tremendous job."
The commission's meeting yesterday offered no solid clues as to how the other commissioners may respond, assuming the recommendations do come to a vote.
Implementation could take months, even years
But some close to the industry believe a number of the recommendations may be approved. The harder question is whether they go forward as commission orders, which could take effect within a matter of months, or through a formal commission rulemaking process with hearings, industry responses and advisory board inputs, all of which could take five years, and perhaps longer.
Task force members said yesterday they were not asking the NRC to rewrite the Atomic Energy Act. But the obvious implications from the Fukushima accident point to the need to raise the safety bar at U.S. reactors, they said.
Task force member Gary Holahan, deputy director of NRC's Office of New Reactors, said yesterday that the group concluded that action was needed to remedy the kinds of inconsistent performance by nuclear plant operators where safety measures covering extreme hazards were covered by voluntary guidelines. "We were looking for something that would have the commission establish expectations of safety. It's pretty clear in the report that we found much more comfort in things that were required than those that were voluntary."
The task force also wants more certainty in the protections against extreme, low-probability natural disasters that pose potentially catastrophic consequences for reactors. Adequate protection of the public requires a more exacting defenses in depth when nature defies probabilities, its members concluded.
The NRC's choice of orders versus rules is one of timing, Holahan added. "Orders are kind of frightening thoughts -- it sounds like an immediate thing. We saw it as virtually the only tool to fill in between now and perhaps five or six years from now."
Daniel F. Stenger, an attorney with Hogan Lovells who counsels nuclear plant owners, said he could not read the commission members' intentions at yesterday's meeting. "Still an issue in my mind is what appetite the commission has for proceeding by order. I would not be surprised to see some orders issued directing interim actions," he said, followed by a rulemaking on the same issues.