The U.S. will move ahead with the licensing process for new nuclear power plants as it reviews the safety of existing reactors after Japan’s crisis, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said.
“As early as late summer, the commission may conduct the first mandatory hearings on new reactor licenses since the 1970s,” Jaczko said today at a hearing of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. Environmental groups sought to halt the process pending a U.S. investigation of reactor safety.
NRC inspectors are examining whether existing U.S. reactors can withstand flooding, earthquakes and the loss of electricity from both the grid and emergency generators, Jaczko said.
The nation’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors are getting closer scrutiny from U.S. regulators and lawmakers after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered partial meltdowns at a nuclear plant in Japan.
The natural disaster destroyed power lines and flooded diesel generators at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai- Ichi plant, shutting down its cooling systems. Fuel rods in four of the six reactor buildings overheated, causing fires, explosions and radiation leaks in the world’s worst nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl accident.
The NRC started a 90-day safety review of U.S. reactors after backup power failed at Fukushima, about 135 miles (217 kilometers) north of Tokyo.
Environmental groups sent a petition to the NRC on April 14 seeking a suspension of the U.S. licensing process until an independent committee examines the lessons of the catastrophe in Japan. The Nuclear Energy Institute said no such delay was necessary.
U.S. nuclear plants may need to be better prepared for a “station blackout,” when cooling systems are severed from the power grid and backup diesel generators fail, Jaczko said April 28 at a public meeting at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. The NRC will study expanding evacuation zones around U.S. plants to 50 miles from 10 miles, Jaczko said April 12.
While the NRC has “confidence in the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants,” the industry’s record needs improvement, Jaczko said today. The number of automatic “scrams,” or sudden shutdowns, in 2010 increased for a second straight year, and three nuclear plants are “subject to increased NRC inspection oversight because of performance deficiencies,” he said.
Republican lawmakers today criticized Jaczko’s decision in October to halt the agency’s review of a proposed federal nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Jaczko’s instruction to NRC staff was based on President Barack Obama’s budget request last year, which eliminated funds for the project. Obama also appointed a panel to study alternatives for handling spent reactor fuel.
Republican lawmakers have said Jaczko lacked the authority to shut the review. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said March 31 his panel is investigating the NRC’s handling of Yucca Mountain.
The energy panel’s investigation is “just starting to scratch the surface,” Upton said today. “We are going to pursue this,” he said.
Halting the review of a proposed waste site was legally justified and “in no way a political action,” Jaczko said today. The “close out” of the NRC’s Yucca Mountain review should be completed by Sept. 30, Jaczko said.
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