Nuclear Industry Must Speed Seismic Reviews, NRC’s Chairman Says

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, disagreeing with a staff proposal, said reactor owners should speed a review of earthquake risks to complete the assessment by 2016, at least a year ahead of schedule.

Seismic reviews at 104 U.S. reactors may take until at least 2017, or later, because reactor owners told the agency technical resources aren’t available for a quicker analysis, Jaczko said today in a phone interview.

“Finding the expertise may be challenging for the industry,” Jaczko said. “It’s a challenge that we all need to overcome.”

“I don’t think it’s acceptable for me to stand in front of the American people and say that I think it’s OK for it to take until 2017,” he said.

The NRC within days may issue its first orders in response to a meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant after a 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March. The agency also is seeking information from reactor owners about seismic hazards and emergency capabilities as regulators weigh rules that may take effect later in the decade.

Jaczko, whose term expires in June 2013, wants all Fukushima-related rules implemented within five years after the disaster.

“Five years is a very, very long time for us to be waiting to see” how plants will deal with earthquake and flooding risks. “That’s just, to me, not acceptable,” he said.

‘Extremely Complex’

“As we made the NRC aware, the seismic analyses are extremely complex, and there are limited resources available to do them, Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, said in a phone interview today. ‘‘That’s just the reality of it.’’

The tsunami in Japan, not the quake, crippled the Fukushima plant, he said. The industry has also begun to implement its own plan to provide back-up equipment, including generators and pumps, at plants to handle power failures.

An NRC staff proposal, based on discussions with industry, would prioritize reviews for plants in the central and eastern U.S., where earthquake risks may be greater than experts previously thought. Evaluations for plants in the west, including Edison International’s San Onofre facility, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Los Angeles, and PG&E Corp.’s Diablo Canyon reactors near San Luis Obispo, California, may not be complete until 2018 or 2019, according to the proposal.

Most U.S. earthquakes occur in the western part of the country, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

‘‘I’m interested in moving all of this as effectively and expeditiously as we can,” Jaczko said.

“The majority of the operating plants couldn’t complete the assessment of the difference between the new and existing seismic hazard before the end of 2016,” Tony Pietrangelo, the industry group’s senior vice president, said in a Feb. 28 letter to Jaczko. “There is a huge difference” between NRC and industry expectations of available resources for the evaluations, he said.

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