Nuclear Plants Need Stronger Disaster Safeguards, Panel Says
Nuclear-power plant owners need to upgrade protections against earthquakes, floods and power losses, according to recommendations from a U.S. panel studying lessons learned from Japan’s reactor crisis.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should require owners to have at least eight hours of backup power at reactors, provide emergency systems to spray water into pools holding spent fuel and install more reliable venting for reactors similar to those that failed in Japan in March, the advisory group said in its report yesterday.
“The task force believes that voluntary industry initiatives should not serve as a substitute for regulatory requirements,” the panel of NRC staff members said in the 92- page report.
The commission appointed the task force to review U.S. safety after the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant north of the Japanese capital. The station suffered three reactor meltdowns after a 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11 knocked out power and backup generators, crippling its cooling systems and triggering the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986.
The panel’s recommendations would replace the “patchwork of regulatory requirements” developed “piece-by-piece over the decades” with a “logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework,” according to the report.
The panel didn’t urge the NRC to require that spent fuel be moved to so-called dry casks after being stored in cooling pools, a measure backed by environmental groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and some U.S. lawmakers. Casks would be the costliest step among potential plant-safety changes that may total more than $10 billion, according to a Bloomberg Government Briefing in April.
“More needs to be done to fully address safety concerns, such as moving spent fuel to dry-cask storage,” Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said today in a statement. Boxer has urged the commission to review safety at the San Onofre plant, owned by Edison International (EIX) of Rosemead, California, and the Diablo Canyon plant, owned by PG&E Corp. (PCG) of San Francisco. Both facilities are located near seismic fault lines in California.
While the report didn’t attach a price tag to its recommendations, a Republican senator said it may lead to costly and unnecessary burdens on energy providers.
“I am concerned that it will become another weapon in the Obama administration’s attack on affordable energy, or an excuse to unleash a regulatory agenda that will only harm our economy,” Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.
Commissioners plan to discuss the safety report at a meeting July 19, and the task force scheduled a public meeting for July 28. The NRC intends to issue an in-depth report in about six months.
The panel recommended that nuclear plant operators be required to bolster back-up power systems to continue cooling the reactor core and spent fuel during prolonged power outages. Plants would be required to be able to generate emergency power for eight hours -- double the current minimum -- supplemented by equipment such as diesel generators that would be trucked in to withstand a 72-hour outage.
Maintaining power is critical to ensuring that control-room dials don’t go dark, a failure that made it impossible for Fukushima workers to detect rising water temperatures in spent- fuel ponds, the task force said.
The panel recommended that plants be equipped with a pump system capable of withstanding earthquakes to supply water.
U.S. operators aren’t required to maintain back-up power when a reactor is shut and emptied of fuel, even though heat loads in cooling ponds are greatest soon after the fuel has been transferred from a reactor. That was the case at Fukushima Dai- Ichi Unit 4, which suffered a hydrogen explosion after spent fuel assemblies melted down.
The nuclear industry should have removed much of the waste from cooling pools as a safety measure after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, according to Jim Riccio, a nuclear-policy analyst in Washington with the environmentalist group Greenpeace.
“We’ve had 10 years to get the waste out of the pools, and we haven’t done it,” he said in an interview today.
About 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored in the U.S., with about 4,000 tons in dry casks and the remainder in pools, Hugh Wynne, senior vice president and senior research analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York, said in a May 13 research note.
Exelon Corp. (EXC), which owns the largest nuclear fleet in the U.S., would have to pay as much as $1 billion to move its spent fuel to dry-cask storage, according to Wynne.
“We will continue to identify and incorporate lessons learned from the Japan events and we constantly look for opportunities to further improve the safety of our plants,” Marshall Murphy, a spokesman for Exelon, said in a statement. “We are looking forward to participating with the NRC as they evaluate the report and the proposed recommendations.”
U.S. nuclear plants “do not pose an imminent risk to the public health and safety,” the task force said.
The advisory panel said a sequence of events similar to the Japan disaster is “unlikely to occur” in the U.S. because reactor owners already have in place safety measures “reducing the likelihood of core damage and radiological releases.”
The Fukushima disaster displaced 50,000 households in the evacuation zone around the plant, about 135 miles (217 kilometers) north of Tokyo, because of radiation leaks into the air, soil and sea.
NRC commissioners have said they expect the Japanese crisis to lead to regulatory changes. Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in June that government inspectors and U.S. companies had underestimated the dangers of natural disasters.
Requirements for plant owners may be adopted through rulemaking, which may take several years, or more rapidly through agency orders.
The task force recommended that the agency order plant owners to re-evaluate reactors’ protection against floods and earthquakes and update them “if necessary.” The commission should also take swift action to ensure that reactors similar to the General Electric Co. (GE) models that failed at Fukushima have “reliable hardened vent designs” and that all plant owners have sufficient electrical power and cooling sprays for their spent-fuel pools, according to the panel.
“What Fukushima shows is the cost of not doing some of the upgrades,” David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said today on a conference call with reporters.
The U.S. nuclear-power industry separately is considering a network of regional centers stocked with portable pumps and generators, radiation-monitoring equipment, spare batteries, flashlights and anti-contamination clothing that would be delivered to reactors within 24 hours of an emergency.
The plan may cost the industry an average of $8 million to $10 million for each of the 104 commercial U.S. reactors in the next 10 years, or about $1 billion, Adrian Heymer, director of strategic programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based group, said in a July 6 interview.
The U.S. nuclear-power industry spent more than $2 billion on additional security following the 9/11 attacks, Heymer said.
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