NRC Delays Action on Vent Plan While to Study Options

U.S. nuclear regulators delayed action on a recommendation that utilities install radiation filters at 31 U.S. reactors, a victory for the industry that estimated the proposal may cost as much as $20 million per unit.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday said its staff should consider other approaches that would block release of radiation during an accident. The standards, developed in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, must be in place by March 2017, according to a commission statement.

Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman, said the agency is seeking an enhanced ability for nuclear-plant operators to “protect public health and safety.”

“There will be some sort of filtering solution on these plants,” Burnell said.

The NRC approved an order requiring the vents to work even if a plant loses power, as happened to the Fukushima reactors. NRC staff also recommended utilities be required to install radiation filters as a further safety improvement.

Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and a critic of the nuclear industry, said the NRC is delaying what he called an important safety upgrade at about a third of the nation’s 104 operating reactors.

“The NRC has abdicated its responsibility to ensure public health and safety in New England and across the country,” Markey, who is running for Senate, said in a statement.

Exelon Units

The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, had said adding filters on vents as proposed by the agency’s staff was among the most expensive upgrades required by the regulator. Exelon Corp. of Chicago owns 11 of the 31 reactors.

“The rulemaking process is the proper approach for consideration of this matter, as it affords all stakeholders the opportunity to participate,” said Anthony Pietrangelo, the NEI’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer.

Pietrangelo in a Jan. 25 letter to NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said passive and engineered filtered vents are “the wrong starting point” to improve safety.

Edwin Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said NRC staff had already made the case the filters were an important safety enhancement. The NRC’s decision “kicks the can down the road.”

Lengthy Review

“We don’t see any reason for the length of time they give staff to reach a final decision,” Lyman said in an interview.

Some European countries require installation of filter to block radiation on vents, Lyman said. Japan announced last year that filtered vents will be required on its reactors.

The commission is writing rules to bolster safety at U.S. reactors after a 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, northeast of Tokyo.

The NRC staff in November recommended that filters be installed on the venting systems at some aging reactors similar to those destroyed at Fukushima. The filters are built to capture radioactive materials before they are released into the atmosphere during an emergency.

Entergy Corp. of New Orleans, Duke Energy Corp. of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Southern Co. of Atlanta are among companies owning units that would need to add the filters.

A requirement for the equipment would benefit filter suppliers, such as Areva SA of Paris and Westinghouse Electric Co., a unit of Tokyo-based Toshiba Corp.

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