The chief regulator’s dissent in a vote that approved the first U.S. permit in 34 years to build a nuclear reactor is fueling a debate over safety as the first anniversary of Japan’s nuclear disaster nears.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 4-1 yesterday to approve the plan of Southern Co. of Atlanta to build and operate two reactors at its Vogtle plant near Augusta, Georgia. The agency issued a permit today, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said in an e-mail.
The commission should have required the company to implement lessons from Japan’s nuclear crisis last year, said Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who opposed the license.
“Right now we know there are things that need to be fixed, things that need to be changed, or at least things that need to be analyzed,” Jaczko said yesterday in an interview at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. “For us to issue this license, and say ‘we’ll deal with them later,’ to me is kind of putting the cart before the horse.”
It has been less than a year after an earthquake and tsunami on March 11 caused meltdowns and radiation leaks at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. The industry has faced concerns about nuclear safety at least since a partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant in 1979, and the NRC’s authorization of Southern’s reactor may face a challenge in federal court from environmental groups.
“The chairman’s vote reflects the post-Fukushima reality that U.S. reactors are not designed to deal with a meltdown” and will need years’ worth of work “to make them less dangerous,” Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace USA, an anti-nuclear group, said in an e-mail.
Southern will build the first U.S. reactors to use a standardized design, which it says will speed construction and reduce risks.
The agency’s vote is a “monumental accomplishment,” Thomas Fanning, Southern’s chairman and chief executive officer, said yesterday in a statement.
“Anything that we learn from Fukushima, I assure you we will bring to bear,” Fanning told reporters on a conference call yesterday. The NRC’s review of the planned reactors “has been thorough, it has been thoughtful and it is complete,” he said in an interview yesterday.
The NRC is weighing rules to improve safety at existing plants, and by March 9 it may direct owners to take steps to be better prepared for power failures.
An agency task force in July recommended that the commission implement rules to improve safety at the 104 U.S. operating reactors, including reviews of seismic and flooding risks. An industry plan to place emergency pumps and generators at plants may speed the agency’s review of the proposed safety enhancements, Martin Virgilio, the NRC’s deputy executive director for reactor and preparedness programs, said at an NRC staff meeting with industry officials Jan. 13.
The agency should have required the Vogtle plant to adhere to all post-Fukushima regulations, such as a potential requirement to ensure that spent-fuel cooling pools have better monitoring equipment, Jaczko said. “I’m concerned that we will have challenges getting all of the Fukushima changes made” at the Vogtle plant, he said.
The NRC chairman said he will work to make sure the NRC’s Fukushima-related regulations are applied to Southern’s plant as the agency considers the rules, which he wants implemented by 2016.
Several environmental and consumer organizations said this week that they may file a lawsuit in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia challenging the NRC award of Southern’s reactor license.
They will ask the court to direct the NRC to complete another environmental impact statement to take into consideration lessons learned after Fukushima, said Stephen A. Smith, executive director of one of the groups, the Knoxville, Tennessee-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“The only way the nuclear power is ever going to be successful is if you assure accidents like Fukushima don’t happen,” Smith said in a phone interview. “Cheer leading and the rush to move forward has overtaken safety,” he said.
The U.S. nuclear industry established its own safety-monitoring organization, the Atlanta-based Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, after a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. Reactor owners have made technology upgrades at power plants, and plant owners spent more than $2 billion to bolster security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group.
“Probably the most robust commercial facilities on the planet are nuclear power plants,” Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer for the NEI, said in a Jan. 11 interview.
Nuclear accidents at U.S. plants would release less radiation than previously thought and would cause almost no immediate deaths, an NRC analysis issued on Feb. 1 determined.
Reactor designers are now implementing more “passive” engineering, which relies more on the laws of physics to improve safety, Eric Loewen, chief consulting engineer for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy in Wilmington, North Carolina, said in a phone interview.
“Usually the laws of physics are a little bit more reliable than making sure that somebody left a valve open or making sure that some automated system works,” said Loewen, who is also president of the American Nuclear Society, a professional group of nuclear scientists and engineers based in La Grange Park, Illinois.