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Nuclear-Plant Emergency Equipment Flaws Cited by U.S. Regulators

Inspections of the 104 U.S. commercial nuclear reactors found some emergency equipment that “would not start when tested,” was being used for other purposes or was stored in “potentially vulnerable areas.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, reporting yesterday on the state of emergency preparedness, said the flaws wouldn’t prevent the safe handling of “extreme events” from floods to earthquakes.

“All the reactors would be kept safe even in the event their regular safety systems were affected by these events, although a few plants have to do a better job maintaining the necessary resources and procedures,” Eric Leeds, NRC director of reactor regulation, said in a statement.

U.S. reactors are getting closer scrutiny after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant with fires, explosions and radiation leaks. The NRC’s inspections are part of a 90-day safety review to see if the U.S. needs tougher nuclear-reactor regulations.

While the NRC didn’t specify the plants that need to take further actions, it released some of the inspection reports on its website late yesterday.

PG&E Corp.’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, located about 160 miles (257 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, may have problems simultaneously pumping emergency cooling water to both its reactors under extreme conditions, according to the report on its inspection.

Firefighting Systems

Some of the plant’s firefighting systems, which could be used to douse spent-fuel pools and reactors with water, may not survive a powerful earthquake, according to the report. The company also needs to study whether “high radiation fields” during a major disaster could cut off its workers from parts of the plant, the NRC said.

Paul Flake, a PG&E spokesman, said the problems the NRC identified at Diablo Canyon “have all been addressed” and “our safety performance is highly regulated.”

Inspections at Entergy Corp.’s Indian Point plant, about 24 miles north of New York City, found “equipment was functional to support execution of all strategies” during a major disaster, the NRC said. Still, Entergy is weighing whether it needs additional equipment to make sure radioactive fuel rods are kept cool after a disaster, such as an earthquake, according to the inspection report.

‘Not Susceptible’

While the Indian Point plant is “not susceptible” to the kind of disaster that struck the Fukushima plant, “we plan and prepare as though we are,” said Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for Entergy. The plant’s owner will “work with the NRC to make any needed enhancements,” he said.

The agency said it will make sure problems are fixed and plans to release a summary of the reports next week. Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman, told reporters May 12 that the agency discovered flaws at fewer than a third of U.S. reactors.

Japan’s nuclear crisis was triggered when the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami destroyed power lines and flooded emergency diesel generators at the Fukushima plant.

Without electricity to run cooling systems, fuel rods in four of the plant’s six reactor buildings overheated in the worst nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Rods in the No. 1 reactor are fully exposed, the utility said May 12, setting back plans to resolve the crisis.

The NRC wasn’t able to complete reviews of internal flooding barriers at Scana Corp.’s Summer nuclear station, located 26 miles northwest of Columbia, South Carolina, because the licensee’s evaluations weren’t finished, the agency said in the reports. The utility had documented results showing several doors weren’t watertight. The company said some leakage is acceptable.

High Winds

Scana also found that some equipment may not withstand an earthquake, including a berm intended to provide shoreline protection against events such as high winds, the NRC said.

At Edison International’s San Onofre nuclear station, about 46 miles southeast of Long Beach, California, the company found some manholes weren’t sealed properly, which could lead to flooding in one of the plant’s electric cable tunnels.

Edison didn’t immediately respond to a message left on a media line. Eric Boomhower, a Scana spokesman, didn’t immediately respond to a phone message and e-mail seeking comment after regular business hours.

U.S. rules for bringing nuclear-reactor meltdowns under control must be tightened by giving regulators more power to shape response plans, an official of the Union of Concerned Scientists said at a hearing of the House Science Committee.

Voluntary Procedures

While NRC inspectors can force a power company to change some disaster procedures, others are voluntary, David Lochbaum, nuclear safety director for the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group, said yesterday at the hearing.

The NRC’s requirements, combined with measures developed by power companies, will protect the public from harmful radiation if “something serious” went “awry at a plant site,” Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based trade group, said in an e-mail yesterday. It’s too soon say whether the NRC will require extra regulations based on the Japan nuclear crisis, Kerekes said.

The NRC is still trying to identify lessons from the Fukushima disaster, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said May 12. It’s likely “we’ll be changing the way we do business and the way the industry does business in this country” because of Japan’s nuclear crisis, Jaczko said.

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