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Nuclear Operators Faulted for Seeking to Skirt NRC Rules

Nuclear-power companies are “jumping the gun” on enhancing reactor safety to pre-empt rules set by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in response to a disaster in Japan, the Union of Concerned Scientists said.

The industry’s plan to place commercial-grade emergency equipment, including portable pumps and generators, at power plants is an attempt to discourage the NRC from proposing more expensive requirements, according to a report today from the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based environmental group.

“The industry is trying to ‘wag the dog,’” the group said.

The NRC plans to issue this week the first orders to enhance safety at U.S. reactors after a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered explosions, meltdowns and radiation leaks at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based organization of plant owners, is generally aligned with the NRC’s regulatory priorities, officials from the group have said.

The NRC is proposing to require reactor owners including Exelon Corp. of Chicago and Entergy Corp. of New Orleans, to have adequate equipment and plans in place to cope with a loss of electric power. Reactor owners in December proposed their plan for back-up equipment, which NRC officials said would help to speed the regulatory process.

Safety, Commercial

Not all equipment to be stored at plants needs to be safety-grade, which may be more expensive than commercial-grade gear, according to Marvin Fertel, the industry group’s chief executive officer. “We think the NRC ought to have a footprint on whatever we put in place” to ensure that it meets regulators’ safety standards, he told reporters today at an event in Washington on the Fukushima disaster.

Reactor owners have purchased or ordered more than 300 pieces of back-up equipment to supplement existing equipment at the 106 U.S. nuclear plants, the industry group said in a statement today. Companies have agreed by the end of March to buy or have under contract equipment to be stored at reactors, Fertel said.

Nuclear plants are “better off” having commercial-grade equipment on hand because it provides an additional layer of safety, Charles Pardee, chairman of the group’s committee that responded to the Japan disaster, said today at a news conference. “This is a financial risk worth taking,” he said.

‘Run To Congress’

If regulators decide safeguards require further action by companies, “the industry could run to Congress and complain that the NRC was imposing standards that would render useless all the equipment it had just bought,” the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report said.

“The NRC needs to tell their industry in no uncertain terms” that reactors are buying the equipment at their own risk, it said.

“The industry’s approach, while promising, still has to be formally evaluated by NRC staff,” Scott Burnell, an agency spokesman, said in an e-mail today. “The industry’s forward-leaning approach also leads plants to closely examine the issues early in the process -- more information will lead to better eventual solutions,” he said.

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