Nuclear Industry Safety Plan ‘Acceptable,’ NRC Official Says

An industry plan to place emergency pumps and generators at nuclear plants has an “acceptable methodology,” which helped persuade the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed a review of safety steps, an official said.

The plan has “features that we believe will serve to mitigate” damage from unexpected events such as earthquakes and flooding, Martin Virgilio, the NRC’s deputy executive director for reactor and preparedness programs, said today at a meeting at agency headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.

The agency must ensure it has adequate oversight of the industry’s proposal, Virgilio said.

The NRC is weighing rules to improve safety at 104 U.S. operating reactors after an earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns and radiation leaks at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in Japan in March. The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, has said the agency shouldn’t move too quickly in implementing rules, because the lessons from Fukushima aren’t fully known.

The industry organization offered a plan in December as a way to ensure that a plant has back-up electricity when power is lost. Reactor owners would install portable equipment, including batteries, hoses and pumps in staging areas to ensure a plant has electricity and water to maintain cooling systems during an emergency.

Reactor Core Damage

The plan “is really focused on the prevention of core damage,” Tony Pietrangelo, NEI’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, said at today’s meeting. With NRC approval, reactor owners could begin to take steps to implement the plan by mid-year, he said. Plant modifications may take at least two years, according to Pietrangelo.

The industry plan would help lessen the likelihood of flooding hazards, he said. The backup-power sources at Fukushima were destroyed by the tsunami.

The group doesn’t have a cost estimate for the plan because specific plants would need different equipment, Adrian Heymer, the industry group’s executive director of strategic programs, told reporters during a Jan. 11 conference call.

The industry’s proposal is “overly optimistic,” David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an e-mail.

The plan “falsely assumes that its measures will be 100 percent successful,” he said. For example, if fuel damage occurs during an accident, high radiation levels may prevent workers from entering an area where they need to make connections to additional water supplies, Lochbaum said.

The plan, along with recommendations from Congress, helped the NRC staff decide to “accelerate our schedule” of its review of Fukushima-related safety improvements, Virgilio said.