The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission should for the first time require plant owners to review earthquake hazards at least once a decade, Chairman Gregory Jaczko said, backing a proposal opposed by industry.
“It’s a very sensible and reasonable thing to do,” Jaczko said in an interview with Bloomberg Government yesterday at the NRC’s headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. “A 10-year review doesn’t necessarily mean a 10-year modification to the plants.”
The NRC has no requirement for regular reviews of earthquake and flood safety after nuclear plants go into operation. A once-a-decade evaluation, with upgrades of facilities as needed, was among proposals in an agency task- force report. The commission requested the study to improve safety at the 104 U.S. commercial reactors after an earthquake and tsunami in March triggered meltdowns and radiation leaks at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in Japan.
The NRC’s staff plans to recommend to the commission tomorrow which proposals to weigh first.
Seeking to head off mandatory earthquake-safety reviews, nuclear-plant owners called instead for dealing with new seismic information “as it emerges,” in comments issued Sept. 6 by the Nuclear Energy Institute. The Washington-based industry group proposed a three-phase approach to identify, assess and update risks. Re-evaluations of seismic and flooding hazards “should be considered as part of the NRC long-term activities,” the trade organization said.
Industry self-evaluations are “fraught with potential abuse,” Christopher Paine, director of the nuclear program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group based in New York, said in an interview. The NRC needs to be involved in a “more clear and rigorous way,” he said.
A 5.8-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 23 that had its epicenter in Virginia “is just further evidence or reinforcement” for the need to reduce risks to nuclear plants from natural disasters, said Jaczko, 40.
The temblor knocked out off-site power at Dominion Resources Inc.’s North Anna nuclear plant in central Virginia, about 11 miles (18 kilometers) from the epicenter. Company officials plan to meet with NRC staff today at the agency’s headquarters to discuss the earthquake’s impact on the plant, which may have been subjected to ground movement that exceeded its design limits. Dominion hasn’t said when it expects to re- start the plant, which is still being examined by NRC inspectors.
The NRC’s task force recommended requiring some older reactors, such as those with a General Electric Co. (GE) design that failed at Fukushima, to have sturdier vents to release pressure to prevent a meltdown. The NRC should also require owners to improve their ability to handle blackouts at power plants, the task force said.
“I really don’t see any of these recommendations that we should not move forward on,” Jaczko said of the task-force report. “They’re all common-sense recommendations.”
The commission decided to delay consideration of a task- force proposal to establish a new regulatory approach to replace what the staff advisers described as a “patchwork” of NRC regulations that have evolved over decades. The NRC staff will take 18 months to consider that recommendation, an approach insisted on by Commissioner William Ostendorff.
“In an ideal world, it would be something we would do right along with everything else,” Jaczko said.
The NRC should “move quickly enough” to ensure that plants are protected from multiple hazards, such as the Virginia earthquake and Hurricane Irene, which battered the eastern U.S. less than two weeks later, Jaczko said.
“Any thought that we have eliminated accidents” is “hopefully vanquished from anybody’s mind who works in this industry,” he said.
Jaczko, a member of the five-member commission since 2005, has led the agency since May 2009. He “was not forthcoming with other commissioners about his intent to stop work” on the government’s proposed nuclear-waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, NRC Inspector General Hubert T. Bell said in a June report that also questioned Jaczko’s management style.
“Jaczko acknowledged that he sometimes loses his temper,” Bell said in the report. He didn’t find that Jaczko broke any laws.
Republicans have accused Jaczko, a former science adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of halting the agency’s work on the repository for political reasons, a charge the NRC chairman has denied. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has led opposition in Washington to the Yucca project.
“We have a very narrow role in the whole Yucca Mountain debate,” said Jaczko, who said he hasn’t taken a personal position on the storage site. “Our job is ultimately to ensure that whatever options are proposed meet safety and security standards.”
President Barack Obama’s administration sought in 2010 to withdraw the license for the Yucca facility, a move thwarted by a Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing board later that year. The full commission hasn’t issued a final decision on the waste dump’s future.
The Yucca Mountain debate, the inspector general’s report and Republican criticism of the chairman have exposed squabbling within the commission.
‘Not a Shy Person’
Jaczko told fellow commissioners to stay out of the agency’s emergency-operations center at its headquarters in the Washington suburbs shortly after the Fukushima plant was crippled, NRC Commissioners Ostendorff, Kristine Svinicki and William Magwood told a congressional committee on May 4.
“What I see is good, healthy debate among commissioners” with different views, Jaczko said in the interview. “It’s actually a very good thing for people to see that.”
“I’m certainly not a shy person, and I’m not somebody without passion,” Jaczko said.
The NRC for years was an agency that drew limited public attention, and that now has changed, Jaczko said.
“I don’t ever think scrutiny and attention is a bad thing,” he said.
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