Tighter U.S. nuclear safety rules proposed

Calling existing nuclear safety rules a “patchwork,” a Nuclear Regulatory Commission task force is recommending tightened regulations and sweeping safety upgrades for the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors.

If enacted, the proposed measures would constitute the biggest safety reforms for the industry since the NRC upgraded its rules after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The recommendations are the result of a 90-day assessment of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. An earthquake and a tsunami there devastated cooling systems, leading to explosions, three reactor-core meltdowns and ongoing releases of radiation.

While the NRC task force concluded that a similar sequence of events “is unlikely to occur in the United States,” it still advised new rules aimed at preventing radiation releases after natural disasters.

The report highlights several of the proposed rules: a requirement that nuclear power companies evaluate earthquake and flood hazards every 10 years and follow up with mitigation of any risks uncovered, more extensive disaster training for severe accidents, and enhanced plans and equipment to deal with a 72-hour loss of reactor cooling power.

The proposed rules are aimed at “redefining the level of protection that is regarded as adequate” in the case of low-probability — but very dangerous — events, said the report, written by senior NRC staff.

The five NRC commissioners will discuss the report at a July 19 meeting. But NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner cautioned that there will be no immediate action. Many of the proposed rules — even if agreed upon by the commissioners — will require public input and formal federal rulemaking.

The task force did call for swifter action on 12 recommendations, which could be forced on the nuclear power industry as “orders.” Among those: inspecting for earthquake and flood risks, protecting emergency equipment from disasters, and hardening exhaust vents in older GE reactors.

The spent fuel pools that store tons of still-radioactive fuel at many U.S. nuclear plants also drew the task force’s attention. At Fukushima, such pools lost cooling water and emitted radiation, and Japanese operators spent long periods with little or no information on the pools’ status. The task force said U.S. nuclear plant operators should upgrade their pool monitoring and provide for emergency water pumping in case of emergency.

The nuclear industry’s lobbying group pointed to the report’s conclusion that U.S. nuclear plants are largely safe.

“The principal conclusion is that there is no imminent threat to the current fleet of plants,” said Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, speaking on Reuters TV. “The plants are safe and we have . . . multiple layers of protection at each facility.”

Pietrangelo cautioned that vetting and implementing the recommendations could take years, with industry, the public, and watchdog groups all having a say.

Several task force recommendations aim to extend the time that nuclear plants can cool their reactors if primary and backup electricity fails, as happened at Fukushima.

“To me, the principal lesson from Fukushima is they couldn’t cope with loss of power,” Pietrangelo said.

The NRC continues to monitor Fukushima, and the task force will make additional, more detailed safety recommendations in another three months.

“This is not an overnight process,” Brenner said. “The reactors at Fukushima are not at the point to be considered stable. There’s still a lot of information we don’t have.”

On Wednesday, a nuclear watchdog group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, released its own, more stringent safety recommendations. In a statement, the group said that current NRC rules for extreme accidents are “weak” and do not protect the public.

David Lochbaum, the group’s nuclear safety director, said Fukushima should “shake the Nuclear Regulatory Commission out of its complacency.” The task force report is full of “good intentions,” he added, warning that “unless those good intentions are implemented in a timely fashion, we might not be able to avoid the hell that was Fukushima.”

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