Task Force Faults U.S. Nuclear Agency’s ‘Patchwork’ Regulations

WASHINGTON, DC, July 13, 2011 (ENS) – The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Japan Task Force today recommended that the NRC’s “patchwork of regulatory requirements” developed “piece-by-piece over the decades” should be replaced with a “logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework” to further bolster nuclear reactor safety in the United States.

The task force was asked to propose improvements in U.S. nuclear power plants in view of the ongoing crisis at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan’s Pacific coast triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and giant tsunami in March.

Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania was the scene of the worst U.S. nuclear accident in 1979. (Photo courtesy British Energy)

The task force recommended improvements covering loss of power to earthquakes, flooding, spent fuel pools, venting and preparedness.

“Continued operation and continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety,” the task force reports.

Still, “a more balanced application of the Commission’s defense-in-depth philosophy using risk insights would provide an enhanced regulatory framework that is logical, systematic, coherent and better understood,” the task force concluded.

“Such a framework would support appropriate requirements for increased capability to address events of low likelihood and high consequence, thus significantly enhancing safety,” the task force wrote.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered major damage and is not expected to reopen. Tsunami waves of up to 14 meters (45 feet) disabled emergency generators and partial nuclear meltdowns occurred in three of the six reactors when cooling systems failed. Hydrogen gas built up and exploded in three of the reactor buildings and spent fuel pools in three units lost cooling water, exposing nuclear fuel. The Japanese government has established a 30 kilometer (20 mile) evacuation zone around the stricken plant.

Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant ruined after an earthquake, tsunami and hydrogen explosions. (Photo courtesy TEPCO)

While declaring that “a sequence of events like the Fukushima accident is unlikely to occur in the United States” and that plants can be operated safely, the NRC task force recognized that “an accident involving core damage and uncontrolled release of radioactivity to the environment, even one without significant health consequences, is inherently unacceptable.”

The task force developed a set of 12 recommendations to increase safety and redefine what level of protection of public health is regarded as adequate. It also recommended additional study of some issues.

“Our recommendations are grouped into four areas beyond the overarching suggestion to clarify the agency’s regulatory framework,” said Charles Miller, an NRC veteran who was about to retire when he was chosen to lead the task force. “We looked at ensuring protection, enhancing accident mitigation, strengthening emergency preparedness and improving the efficiency of NRC programs.”

“The independence given our team was outstanding. Everything was on the table and we felt free to take a holistic approach to these key subjects,” Miller said.

The task force recommends:

  • Requiring plants to reevaluate and upgrade as necessary their design-basis seismic and flooding protection of structures, systems and components for each operating reactor and reconfirm that design basis every 10 years. A design basis accident is one that a nuclear facility must be designed and built to withstand without loss to the systems, structures, and components necessary to assure public health and safety.
  • Strengthening station blackout mitigation capability for existing and new reactors for design-basis and beyond-design-basis natural events – such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes or tsunamis – with a rule to set minimum coping time without offsite or onsite AC power at eight hours
  • Establishing equipment, procedures and training to keep the core and spent fuel pool cool at least 72 hours
  • Preplanning and pre-staging offsite resources to be delivered to the site to support uninterrupted core and pool cooling and coolant system and containment integrity as needed
  • Requiring that facility emergency plans address prolonged station blackouts and events involving multiple reactors
  • Requiring additional instrumentation and seismically protected systems to provide additional cooling water to spent fuel pools if necessary; and requiring at least one system of electrical power to operate spent fuel pool instrumentation and pumps at all times. The task force noted, “It will take some time for a full understanding of the sequence of events and condition of the spent fuel pools.”
  • Requiring reliable hardened remotely operated, DC powered vent valves in boiling water reactors with Mark I and Mark II containments. Containment pressure can rise to levels that require venting to the atmosphere when events occur that exceed the design basis. As events at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant showed, this venting comes with risks such as over-pressurization of duct work and the inability to open the valves during a station blackout or under abnormal pressures. In the United States there are 23 Mark I and eight Mark II containments, 31 plants in all.
  • Strengthening and integrating onsite emergency response capabilities such as emergency operating procedures, severe accident management guidelines and extensive damage mitigation guidelines
  • Identifying, as part of the longer term review, insights about hydrogen control and mitigation inside containment or in other buildings as more is learned about the Fukushima accident
  • Evaluating, as part of the longer term review, potential enhancements to prevent or mitigate fires or floods triggered by earthquakes
  • Pursuing, as part of the longer term review, emergency preparedness topics on decision making, radiation monitoring and public education; Strengthened regulatory oversight of plant safety performance – the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process by which plants are monitored on a daily basis – by focusing more attention on defense-in-depth requirements

The task force also acknowledged work on flooding and seismic issues under way at the NRC before the March 11 Fukushima event.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (Photo courtesy IAEA)

The report has been given to the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who are responsible for making decisions regarding the task force’s recommendations. This short-term review will be followed by a longer term review with recommendations for the commission’s consideration within six months.

“We asked the Japan Task Force to undertake a systematic and methodical review of our processes and regulations to determine if the Commission should make additional improvements in our regulations and to give us recommendations for policy direction. This comprehensive report fulfills that charter,” said NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said, “The NRC’s 90-day review includes important steps that would improve safety at U.S. nuclear facilities. We must ensure that the NRC forcefully implements the safety recommendations contained in this report. In addition to the recommendations in the report, more needs to be done to fully address safety concerns, such as moving spent fuel to dry cask storage.”

Representing the nuclear industry, Tony Pietrangelo, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer said, “Implementation of the full scope of recommendations in the report, if approved by the NRC commissioners, would require clear policy direction from the commission on reshaping the agency’s regulatory framework.”

“The nuclear energy industry has taken seriously the accident at Fukushima Daiichi and continues to both support recovery efforts in Japan and compile lessons learned that can be applied to U.S. reactors,” Pietrangelo said. “We have undertaken significant work in the past 90 days to examine our facilities and take the steps necessary to enhance safety.”

“The industry reiterates our commitment to make nuclear plant safety our top priority,” said Pietrangelo. “Even as the NRC and industry separately have taken steps to identify additional layers of protection to enhance nuclear plant safety, the NRC and many of our nation’s leaders have recognized that U.S. reactors are safe. We certainly agree.”

The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists today released its own recommendations to ensure the safety and security of U.S. nuclear plants. Many address “problems that have been evident for decades,” the organization said, while others address “problems brought to light during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis.”

A Fukushima-like crisis could happen at any one of the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who heads UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project.

“Japan’s reactor designs are similar, their protective barriers are similar, and their regulations are, in some cases, even stronger,” said Lochbaum, who worked in the U.S. nuclear industry for 17 years before joining Union of Concerned Scientists. “If a U.S reactor were faced with a similar challenge, maybe not the exact combo of earthquake and tsunami, but some other natural disaster or human error, it’s unlikely that the story would have a happier ending.”

“Fukushima should shake the Nuclear Regulatory Commission out of its complacency,” Lochbaum said. “There are a number of actions the agency can and should take to make U.S. nuclear plants safer. They can start with our recommendations, many of which we’ve been making for years.”

UCS recommends that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extend the scope of its regulations to include “severe,” or extreme, low-probability accidents.

Currently, the agency’s regulations concentrate on so-called “design-basis” accidents – ones that U.S. reactors must be designed to withstand.

“Severe accidents can happen, but the NRC’s weak requirements and the industry’s voluntary severe accident guidelines are not enough to protect the public, especially when a significant number of plants do not pay attention to those guidelines,” the UCS warned.

This recommendation encompasses the issue of “station blackout,” when a plant loses both off-site and on-site AC power to maintain cooling systems as occurred at Fukushima Daiichi.

The Union of Concerned Scientists says the NRC should strengthen emergency planning requirements, warning, “The 10-mile-radius emergency planning zone around plants is not large enough to adequately protect all the people living near plants who may be at significant risk.”

The NRC should require plant owners to transfer spent nuclear fuel from storage pools to less-vulnerable dry casks after five years, when it is cool enough to remove from the pools.

The nuclear regulator should, “Force the owners of more than 40 reactors to comply with fire protection regulations, which the agency originally established in 1980 and amended in 2004.”

And the NRC should “require owners to strengthen protection against potential terrorist attacks.”

Briefing reporters on a teleconference today, the UCS’s Dr. Ed Lyman warned, “We are uneccesarily at risk from terrorists.”

“We need more than ever to have a robust security posture at nuclear power plants,” said Lyman, “however, NRC shortchanges security at what industry could be expected to pay for not what the threat actually is.”

The agency should, “Require new reactors to be safer than currently operating reactors, most of which were built at least 30 years ago,” the UCS recommended.

And the NRC should also, “Make the value of human life it uses in its analyses consistent with that of other government agencies, which are higher. That would force plant owners to add safety features that the NRC now considers too expensive because it underestimates the value of lives that could be saved,” the UCS recommended, explaining that the NRC uses the figure of $3 million as the value of a human life, while other agencies use figures that range up to $9 million.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.