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NRC Revisits Old Question: How Safe are U.S. Nuclear Reactors?

In the wake of the multiple meltdowns at Fukushima, government regulators ponder what is needed to improve safety in the U.S.



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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.

"I do think the NRC is probably correct that there will be points where they know this is a real lesson learned event, and they need to take action," Stenger said. It is essential, however, for the NRC to be careful where it draws the line, he added. "There's validity to both sides. The key thing is for the NRC to make sure they have an adequate technical basis and understanding of what happened, before imposing significant new requirements."

Industry worries probe will go too far, and too fast
The industry's Nuclear Energy Institute has already drawn a line opposing NRC orders on new safety requirements.

Tony Pietrangelo, NEI's chief nuclear officer, acknowledged that the some companies fell short in the post-Fukushima inspections ordered by the NRC to test compliance with security regulations adopted after the 9/11 attacks and the voluntary severe accident mitigation guidelines now in place. The inspections identified U.S. plants where fire equipment to be used for emergency reactor core cooling was not protected against earthquakes, for example, or where crucial reactor electrical controls could be knocked out by flooding.

"They did find some deficiencies, no question," Pietrangelo said. The industry is taking action, he added.

"We've already started walk-downs [inspections] on seismic and flooding," he said. That process can be verified in ways other than mandatory orders. "I still think that orders are not appropriate.

"There are some near-term things we can definitely do," within a year or two. These could include new measures to extend plant protection when outside and backup alternating current power and new instrumentation to monitor conditions in spent fuel pools in emergencies. "It's how you do it.

"The task force was sequestered for 90 days. Now we need more analysis and more stakeholder interaction. We want to do it right, and we want to do it once. The stuff has to be prioritized so that the new regulations don't preclude us from doing things that could have a greater impact on reliability," Pietrangelo said.

NEI's criticism of the task force for pushing too far and too fast has been picked up by some leading House and Senate Republicans on energy committees. The task force process has become another GOP arrow aimed at Jaczko for his role in halting the NRC's review of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear fuel repository.

Roger Mattson, who headed the NRC's division of safety systems at the time of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and led an investigation of the accident, called the task force work "a good report."

'Things that need to be done now'
"They've drawn a careful line between what they think is required [immediately through orders] and what should take a longer time, and it looks reasonable to me. These are good, common sense recommendations," said Mattson, who helped convene a group of international nuclear safety experts who recommended stronger international reactor safeguards to the International Atomic Energy Agency following the Fukushima accident.

The task force recommendation on converting voluntary guidelines on severe accident responses into mandatory rules is right. It doesn't require a lot more stakeholder involvement, he said.

"The industry said they would do it. The proof came whether they had. And they hadn't, so now it's time to regulate it." The task force recommendation to harden venting systems should be fast-tracked too, he said. "I'm not willing to wait five years to deal with containment venting. To throw everything into rulemaking would be a serious mistake. There are things that need to be done now," Mattson said.

But the industry gets support from an unusual direction. David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project, said he prefers for the industry to make its own arguments, but he agrees that rulemaking is the proper course for most of the task force recommendations.

"An open rulemaking process allows plant owners to complain that the gains [the NRC seeks] are burdensome and that there isn't much in the way of safety gains. At the end of the day, rulemaking defines the proper height of the safety bar." If the NRC skips that, they are depriving the plant owners of their legal right to say this is too burdensome, and equally depriving the public of the right to argue for more protection, he said.

"Why does it take so many years to do a rulemaking?" Lochbaum asked. The NRC is able to expedite licensing issues. "Do they have to take multiple years on the safety side to play paper-rock-scissors?

"You can do it in a rulemaking in a timely manner. So the process is important. Rather than use orders to short circuit, fix the process."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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