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Japan’s Nuclear Lessons to Get Applied Right Away, U.S. NRC Says

Nuclear-power plant regulators will apply lessons from Japan’s reactor crisis immediately without delaying until licenses are renewed, the head of operations at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

“We won’t wait” to order fixes at the 104 U.S. reactors, Bill Borchardt, the executive director for operations, said after briefing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. Borchardt told senators there was “no technical reason” that the crisis in Japan would affect license renewals.

Licenses for commercial U.S. reactors were limited to 40 years “based on economic and antitrust considerations,” not because of technology, according to the NRC’s website. Under U.S. law, the NRC may extend licenses by 20 years if the operator shows the unit can be operated safely.

The agency has approved license extensions for 63 reactors, or 60 percent of the fleet. Applications for licenses at 19 existing reactors are under review, according to NRC data.

The commission’s safety study that started last week will examine whether operators should be required to improve the capabilities of batteries that keep cooling systems running when electricity is lost, Borchardt said.

Cooling systems lost power and backup generators failed, allowing radioactive fuel rods in reactors and storage pools to overheat after the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami disabled the reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima plant. Workers used helicopters and fire trucks to douse the Japanese plant with water to avert a meltdown.

Restoring Cooling System

Peter Lyons, the acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the U.S. Energy Department, said cooling systems hadn’t “been adequately restored” in Japan.

Radioactive water found in the basement of a turbine building that serves one of the reactors is “a result of the water that they’ve been injecting” to keep nuclear fuel rods cool, Borchardt said.

“The water is the result of the ‘bleed and feed’ process that they have been using to keep water in the reactor cores and in the containment of the units,” he said. “The exact flow path of that leakage has not been determined.”

Borchardt said the situation at Fukushima “continues to further stabilize” as workers reconnect the damaged plant to the power grid.

“I think it’s headed in the right direction,” Borchardt told reporters.

Evacuation Planning

A U.S. recommendation that Americans living within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the damaged plant leave was a prudent decision based on a Nuclear Regulatory Commission assessment of dangers, and fear that the fuel was damaged and the pools holding spent rods were empty or low on cooling water, he said.

Borchardt said the U.S. will evaluate its own emergency response procedures, including evacuation plans, during the reactor review. U.S. law requires a plan for moving residents living within 10 miles of a nuclear plant in an emergency.

Regulations setting the capability of back-up batteries vary by site, Borchardt said. Batteries at U.S. plants last from 4 hours to 8 hours. Regulators will review whether the Japan experience warrants a stricter requirement, he said.

The U.S. should freeze license renewals and permits for the construction of new nuclear reactors, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group said today in a report.

Nuclear power plants pose “inherent dangers” that can’t be overcome with safety measures and the U.S. “must move away from nuclear power and toward safer alternatives,” such as solar panels and wind turbines, the Boston-based advocacy group said in the report.

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