Nuclear Operators Must Provide Disaster-Plan Details, NRC Says

U.S. nuclear regulators are demanding more details from power companies on plans to cope with the potential effect of natural disasters or terrorist attacks on commercial reactors.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced the new request before a meeting today on the agency’s response to the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi complex. A magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami struck the Japanese plant on March 11, causing the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

The NRC said yesterday the companies must show they can shut down their reactors safely following “large explosions or fires.” Plant owners must answer by July 11.

The Fukushima crisis “is one of the most serious nuclear accidents ever to occur, and will be regarded as a seminal event in the history of nuclear power,” NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a conference hosted by reactor owners yesterday.

U.S. nuclear operators were required to revamp their disaster plans after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “to deal with the potential loss of large areas of the plant after extreme events,” according to the NRC.

The agency, which is in the middle of a 90-day safety review triggered by the Fukushima disaster, wants to make sure the plants are meeting those standards, Jaczko said yesterday. While the agency currently believes existing disaster regulations are adequate, it may decide tougher rules are warranted after the Japanese crisis, he said.

Cooling Fuel Rods

The safety review, which began in March, is focused on whether U.S. nuclear reactors and pools filled with used radioactive fuel rods can be adequately cooled after a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or flood. Fuel rods at the stricken Fukushima plant overheated when electricity to run temperature-reduction systems was disrupted, causing fires, explosions and radiation leaks.

The power lines and emergency generators that supply electricity to cooling systems at U.S. plants are under scrutiny, and the ability of reactors and pools to withstand extreme forces is being studied, according to an NRC official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the agency staff hadn’t yet briefed the five commissioners.

The agency is checking that nuclear-plant owners have emergency procedures, such as pumping water from fire hoses, to cool reactors and fuel rods during severe accidents that cause long-term power loss, according to the official. The NRC is also examining whether plants should move more radioactive fuel rods out of storage pools and into dry casks, the official said.

Industry Safety Checks

In safety checks conducted by plant operators on their own since the Fukushima disaster, some power companies found they weren’t fully prepared for an aircraft hitting their reactors, Nuclear Energy Institute Chief Executive Officer Marvin Fertel said May 10.

The inspections were overseen by the Atlanta-based Institute of Nuclear Power Operators, an industry-backed safety group. They detected a few instances where equipment was stored in the wrong location and workers hadn’t received updated training, said Fertel, whose Washington-based organization represents reactor operators.

Those plants are taking corrective actions and the industry is “well on its way” to providing the information demanded by the NRC, the NEI said in an e-mail yesterday.

James Ellis, chief executive officer of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators, declined to discuss the findings of the safety group’s inspections.

In a speech to yesterday’s NEI conference, Ellis said the industry should consider setting up a “robust, highly capable response team with pre-staged equipment” that can rush to nuclear emergencies in the U.S. and other countries.

“This is not the time for timidity or creeping incrementalism,” Ellis said.

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