“NRC inspectors have identified code compliance issues with the rebar design of the basemat and walls, which delayed pouring concrete for the ‘nuclear islands,’ or bases, of the reactors,” Macfarlane said Feb. 28 in testimony before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She said the problems were being resolved and that the companies were planning to start pouring concrete in March.
Despite the relatively stagnant growth of U.S. nuclear power plants, the industry has found ways to maintain its roughly 20 percent share of electricity generation. The NRC has issued 73 license renewals for plants, and operators have figured out ways to improve efficiency and add the equivalent of 24 new 1,000-megawatt units over the past 20 years, according to Farrell.
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Many companies are also talking about the possibility of turning to smaller, cheaper reactors. Macfarlane said she expects an application for design certification in 2014.
The NRC is tightening up guidelines for existing U.S. plants as a result of the Fukushima disaster, adding safeguards and measurement devices for spent fuel pools; ordering hardened, more-reliable vents from containment buildings; and requiring greater emergency communications — all areas that failed at Fukushima.
Utilities are already adding new backup generators at or near reactor sites to make sure power to plants does not fail as it did in Fukushima.
Some nuclear industry executives are already raising concerns about the cost of the post-Fukushima proposals, but Macfarlane plans to push ahead.
In December, she visited Fukushima.
“I was at loss for words,” she said. “It was awesome in a way, but in the negative sense, to see these villages. Everything is there. The gas stations, little shops but nobody there, and weeds taking over parking lots. A nice garden with dry dead stuff. Weeds growing over the train tracks.” At the nuclear site, she surveyed tsunami debris and “the rusting carcasses of overturned trucks.”
Macfarlane said the lesson for the NRC might be to raise the level of the urgency it gives to considering rare events, including tornado hazards. “You might fold climate change into this,” she said.