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Safety Rules for U.S. Nuclear Waste, Plant Outages Advance

NRC Moves Closer to Post-Fukushima Rules As Anniversary Loom
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rules would require that U.S. plant owners have sufficient equipment on site to handle blackouts and adequate instruments to monitor pools containing spent fuel during an emergency. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved closer to imposing tougher safeguards at the nation’s reactors, a year after a disaster in Japan that triggered radiation leaks from a crippled power plant.

The commission led by Chairman Gregory Jaczko voted unanimously to issue three orders for safety steps at 104 operating reactors. The agency now will complete writing the rules, which may be released by March 9, David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman, said in an e-mail. Companies including Southern Co. and Exelon Corp. would have until early next year to write a plan and comply by 2016.

“The rapidly approaching one-year anniversary of the tragic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident in Japan is a poignant reminder of the importance of our work for nuclear safety,” Jaczko said in his vote, posted yesterday on the agency’s website.

A 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11 crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, causing explosions, radiation leaks and meltdowns. The NRC and the nuclear industry have been studying the disaster to bolster U.S. plant protection from floods, quakes and power failures that prevent the cooling of atomic waste.

The NRC’s rules would require that plant owners have sufficient equipment on site to handle blackouts as well as adequate instruments to monitor pools holding spent fuel during an emergency. The agency also wants operators with older, General Electric Co.-designed reactors, similar to those that failed in Japan, to have “hardened vents” to relieve gas pressure and prevent explosions.

Sales Possible

The safety orders may prompt companies that own a single nuclear plant to consider selling the units to avoid higher operating costs, PPL Corp. Chief Executive Officer William Spence said.

The proposed requirements would be more efficiently met by owners with multiple reactors, Spence said in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York on Feb. 29. PPL has no plan to sell its 2,289-megawatt Susquehanna nuclear plant 70 miles (113 kilometers) northeast of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which it views as a key strategic asset, Spence said.

PPL, based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and 13 other companies run a single nuclear plant, according to NRC data.

Commissioners George Apostolakis, William Magwood, William Ostendorff and Kristine Svinicki asked for some procedural revisions to the rules before they take effect. Svinicki made her vote public today, a day after her colleagues took the same action.

‘Sound, Common Sense’

“These three orders contain sound and common-sense proposals,” Apostolakis said in a statement. He and Ostendorff said the orders, presented to the commission Feb. 17, should be revised to explicitly say that they’re needed to ensure adequate public health and safety.

The NRC had set March 9 for action on the orders, developed after an agency review of failures at the Fukushima plant, and any revisions to the rules could delay the schedule, McIntyre said.

The NRC’s staff expects to prepare the technical plans for the rules by August, giving reactor owners until February 2013 to write individual compliance plans and to take action no later than Dec. 31, 2016.

Regulatory ‘Patchwork’

The commission is weighing additional rules that would require reviews of seismic and flooding hazards as well as a proposal to replace what an agency task force described as a regulatory “patchwork.” Jaczko wants reactor owners, such as Duke Energy Corp. and Dominion Resources Inc., to comply with Fukushima-related rules within five years of the disaster.

“An unfortunate consequence of taking action now is that the so-called regulatory ’patchwork’ is perpetuated,” Apostolakis said.

Reactor owners are “generally aligned” with the NRC’s top regulatory priorities to improve plant safety after Fukushima, Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, said in an e-mail.

The industry on Feb. 21 approved a plan to place portable equipment, including back-up pumps and generators, at plants to handle emergencies.

“More than 300 pieces of major equipment that supplement our layered protective approach already have been acquired or ordered,” Kerekes said.

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