NRC Japan Task force proposes regulatory change

Posted by By at 26 July, at 17 : 13 PM Print

The on-going nuclear disaster in Japan should trigger change in the way commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. are regulated.

At least, that’s one of the recommendations in a comprehensive review of the first 90 days of the March 11 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Japan Task Force.

The Task Force offered several recommendations to improve nuclear safety and reliability in the wake of a natural or man-made disaster, but a core message was a call to make the regulatory process more consistent.

Decades of requirements, some voluntary, and many added after the 9/11 attacks, were developed piece by piece by the NRC “using the best information and techniques available,” the Task Force said.  The result, was a “patchwork” of requirements and safety initiatives that are not “given equivalent consideration and treatment by licensees” or during NRC technical reviews and inspections.

“The Task Force believes that improving the NRC’s regulatory framework is an appropriate, realistic and achievable goal,” the report said.

If the recommendations are adopted by the full commission, it will impact Pennsylvania’s five nuclear power stations.

The Task Force will meet Thursday, July 28, to review the report in a public meeting at the NRC’s headquarters in Rockville, Md.

Glen E. Chick, vice president at Exelon Nuclear’s Three Mile Island plant, said the company is comparing procedures at all 10 of it’s plants based on the recommendations in the report. Exelon owns TMI, Limerick, and Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania.

“I think you’ll see a process change,” he said, in reference to the report.

Among the Task Force’s recommendations:

  • Requiring plants to upgrade plans for protecting against earthquakes and floods every 10 years.
  • Strengthening the ability to maintain power during blackouts for eight hours.
  • Ensure the ability to keep spent fuel pools cool for 72 hours.
  • Require more instrumentation and earthquake-proof systems to provide cooling water to the fuel pools, and dedicate at least one source of electric power to operating fuel pool instruments and pumps at all times.

In the long term, the Task Force called for procedures that would control hydrogen buildup inside the containment building that houses the reactor, and enhance the ability to prevent or mitigate fires and floods caused by earthquakes.

The report is drawing mixed reviews from industry and watchdog groups.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the Washington,D.C.-based organization that represents the nation’s nuclear plant owners and operators, called the report a “first step.” But in a written statement that neither endorsed or rejected its recommendations, NEI senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, Tony Pietrangelo, said implementing the recommendations “would require clear policy direction from the commission on reshaping the agency’s regulatory framework.”

Pietrangelo also noted that the report cited no significant data from the accident to support its recommendations.

“Given the mammoth challenge it faced in gathering and evaluating the still-incomplete information from Japan, the agency should seek broader engagement with stakeholders on the task force report to ensure that its decisions are informed by the best information possible,” he said.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, a non-profit group that opposes the use of nuclear energy, supported recommendations to protect reactors from seismic activity and flooding, and called on the NRC to implement them before any more licenses are granted, or renewed. With no new reactors on the horizon, plant owners have been requesting – and receiving – 20-year extensions of their operating licenses.

What the report lacked, PSR said in a statement, was a recommendation to move spent fuel from pools of treated water to a hardened, on-site storage system. Plant workers in Japan struggled to keep water in the pools used to store spent, but highly toxic, fuel rods.

The concern was echoed by the Union of Concerned Scientists and U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and ranking member of the Natural Resource Committee, who has been a frequent critic of the NRC.

“It is still unclear whether cooling was resumed in time to prevent the spent fuel from overheating and melting, and releasing radiation,” UCS said in a statement. “However, the spent fuel pools at U.S. reactors could have fared worse, since they are far more densely packed than those at Fukushima and pose even greater hazards.”

In addition to concerns about the spent fuel pools, Markey also noted that the Task Force made no specific recommendations to alter the 10-mile emergency evacuation zones around nuclear plants, or to distribute potassium iodide pills to residents living within 20 miles of a plant. The pills protect the thyroid gland from radiation.

“We should not wait for a catastrophic accident at a nuclear reactor in this country to occur to implement this common-sense emergency preparedness measure,” said Markey, who has introduced legislation to require the distribution.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists who has extensive experience inside the industry, called on the NRC to raise the bar owners must clear to ensure their plants are able to cope with accidents that go beyond the worst that can be expected, a process known as “design-basis threat.”

At Three Mile Island, for example, the walls of the containment building are designed to withstand the impact of a passenger jet because of the proximity of Harrisburg International Airport.

“While unlikely, severe accidents can occur — as in Fukushima — and can cause substantial damage to the reactor core and failure of the

containment building, leading to large releases of radiation,” UCS said in a detailed statement. “However, NRC regulations are focused on design-basis accidents and are far less stringent in addressing severe accidents.“

UCS also called on the agency to strengthen its emergency planning requirements.

Currently, emergency planning is limited to a 10-mile radius around the reactor. But, UCS officials noted, the U.S. government advised Americans living within 50 miles of the Japanese plant to leave.

Photo by Kawamoto Takuo

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Garry Lenton is an editor and freelance journalist who has worked in Pennsylvania for more than three decades. Since 2008 he has served as an editor for Press And Journal Publications in Middletown, which produces the weekly Press And Journal as well as monthly and bimonthly magazines. Lenton spent most of his career at The Patriot-News, where he served, among other things, as a bureau chief, capital correspondent, and a specialist in database reporting and the nuclear industry. He has won national and state awards for investigative reporting, and his coverage of science, health, environmental, and criminal justice issues. He serves on the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Society of Newspaper Editors and is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He lives in Lebanon, Pa., with his wife, Peggy. They have three children. - Email Garry Lenton

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