New crisis planning urged for US nuclear plants

Report to NRC calls for safer backup system

Representative Ed Markey said 'America’s nuclear fleet remains vulnerable' to a disaster similar to what occurred in Japan. Representative Ed Markey said "America’s nuclear fleet remains vulnerable" to a disaster similar to what occurred in Japan.
By Dina Cappiello
Associated Press / July 13, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Calling the Japan nuclear disaster “unacceptable,’’ an expert task force convened by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that nuclear power plants in the United States need better protections for rare, catastrophic events.

The panel’s recommendations, included in a 90-page report obtained yesterday by the Associated Press, would reset the level of protection at the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl by making the plants better prepared for incidents that they were not initially designed to handle.

The panel will tell the commission that nuclear plants should be ordered to reevaluate their earthquake and flood risk, add equipment to address damage to multiple reactors, and make sure that electrical power and instruments are in place to monitor and cool spent fuel pools after a disaster.

In a news release issued yesterday, the NRC said the 12 steps recommended in the report would “increase safety and redefine what level of protection to public health is regarded as adequate.’’ The full report will be released today, the NRC said.

The three-month investigation was undertaken after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that cut off all electrical power to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, resulting in core damage at multiple reactors, the loss of cooling at spent fuel pools, hydrogen explosions, and radioactive releases into the environment.

The task force says there is no imminent risk to public health and the environment from operating nuclear power plants in the United States. But its members admit that the current patchwork of regulations is not given equal consideration or treatment by power plant operators or by the NRC, during its technical reviews and inspections.

Representative Ed Markey of Malden, the top Democrat on the House natural resources panel, urged the commission to move quickly to adopt the task force recommendations and learn the lessons of Fukushima, saying that “America’s nuclear fleet remains vulnerable to a similar disaster.’’

But Senator James Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, ranking member of the Senate environment committee, said such sweeping changes were premature.

“Changes in our system may be necessary,’’ Inhofe said, but “a nuclear accident in Japan should not automatically be viewed as an indictment of US institutional structures and nuclear safety requirements.’’

US nuclear regulators have said repeatedly that the nation’s nuclear power plants are safe and should continue operating. Yet, as details about the Japan disaster began to emerge, so, too, did possible areas of improvement in emergency preparedness at the US plants.

After the Japan disaster, the NRC ordered inspections at all nuclear plants to see if they were complying with requirements put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to deal with severe accidents. Inspectors found some minor problems, such as wrong phone numbers for emergency personnel, a lack of training, and equipment housed in buildings that could not withstand a natural disaster. But none of the issues would jeopardize safety, the NRC said.

At a public meeting in June, the NRC’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko, questioned why the United States is not better prepared to deal with a prolonged station blackout, a situation in which both electrical power and backup emergency power are lost. That is what happened in Japan after the tsunami wiped out diesel generators.

In this country, nuclear power plants are required to cope for only four to eight hours, the length of time batteries would last. After that, power is assumed to be restored.

The task force is recommending that each operating plant and new reactor be required to deal with a complete loss of electrical power for eight hours and be able to provide cooling to the radioactive core and spent fuel pool for 72 hours.

It wants earthquake and flood risks to be updated every 10 years, to account for the latest science. In addition, the task force wants rules requiring more hands-on training and exercises for emergencies, and plans to deal with disasters that strike multiple reactors at a plant. Most emergency guidelines now deal only with problems at a single reactor.

The report will be formally presented to the full commission next week. NRC staff will continue to examine the safety of nuclear power in the United States as part of a six-month investigation.