SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners Ignore Lessons Learned from Fukushima:
Commission Denies Watchdog Group’s Appeal in Licensing of TVA’s Watts Bar Reactor
Contact: Jennifer Rennicks, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, 865-235-1448
Knoxville, Tenn. (September 24, 2015) ///PRESS RELEASE/// – The long-sought issuance of an operating license for a second reactor at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee moved one step closer with a decision today by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The Commissioners denied a petition request filed in May by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) regarding post-Fukushima investigations which demonstrate that the Watts Bar site is subject to greater earthquake risks than it is designed to withstand.* TVA originally started construction on the two-reactor nuclear plant in the early 1970s.
SACE requested that the Commission review a decision made in April by an NRC licensing board, arguing that the board violated the Atomic Energy Act when it refused to grant the organization a hearing on its contention that the NRC’s operating license review for Watts Bar Unit 2 should have covered updated information about seismic risks to the reactor’s safety equipment. In 2012, the NRC had ordered TVA and other licensees to re-evaluate earthquake risks to their reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. TVA’s seismic investigation showed that Watts Bar 2 is vulnerable to reasonably foreseeable earthquakes that would exceed the reactor’s design basis.
“We are extremely disappointed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision. Now that we know that Watts Bar Unit 2 was not designed adequately to withstand earthquakes and floods in light of the post-Fukushima analysis, the NRC should make it a top priority to ensure that safety equipment is protected in the event of reasonably foreseeable severe earthquakes. Today’s decision now allows the NRC technical staff to postpone that review until after Watts Bar Unit 2 begins operating, which could happen within the next couple months,” said Sara Barczak, high risk energy choices program director with SACE. “Why is a reactor that has been under construction since the early 1970s being rushed through the licensing process now? With today’s vote, the NRC Commissioners failed to ensure that the licensing process is conducted properly—these are serious safety issues that should not be overlooked or addressed after-the-fact and outside of public scrutiny.”
Despite having significant recent construction work, Watts Bar does not have the safety features of a modern reactor. It relies on the antiquated “ice condenser” containment design that has not been used for reactor construction in decades. Nor has the reactor been re-designed to anticipate the earthquake and flooding risks revealed by TVA’s post-Fukushima investigations. With today’s decision, the NRC has postponed any decisions about whether to require design changes until after the reactor begins operation.
Diane Curran, SACE’s attorney, stated, “By postponing its post-Fukushima safety review until after Watts Bar Unit 2 is licensed, the NRC fails to provide the public with the reasonable level of safety protection that is guaranteed by the Atomic Energy Act and has also evaded the public accountability provided by licensing hearings.”
SACE had corresponded with the NRC regarding the Fukushima recommendation and Watts Bar 2 prior to filing the contention in February 2015, but failed to receive satisfactory responses. In June 2014, SACE’s counsel wrote to then-NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane to express the organization’s concern that TVA was conducting its post-Fukushima seismic and flooding reviews apart from the licensing process and did not intend to complete those reviews until after the operating license proceeding had concluded.
In November 2014, William M. Dean, NRC’s Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation responded that for purposes of licensing Watts Bar reactor Unit 2, the NRC is considering “the current design-basis hazards of record” – i.e., the earthquake and flood risks that formed the basis for Watts Bar’s construction permit in the 1970s. Mr. Dean assured SACE that the NRC would not license the reactor if it could not be operated safely under the 1970s design basis conditions. He also said that the NRC would need “several years” to complete the post-Fukushima evaluations and that when they were finished, the NRC would determine “if safe operation requires additional regulatory action.” In the meantime, he noted that the Fukushima Task Force had already concluded that “continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety.”
Resources: SACE’s February 2015 contention; TVA’s response and the NRC staff’s response and SACE’s final response filed in mid-March along with the corresponding press release. SACE’s May 2015 petition for review and press release. Information on the NRC’s licensing process is here and TVA’s information on Watts Bar 2 is here, including a project timeline.
* The NRC put Watts Bar 1 and 2 in “Group 1,” reactors with the greatest earthquake vulnerability and therefore the highest priority for completing seismic risk evaluations. Watts Bar had to follow the NRC’s “Expedited Approach” which is described as “A near-term licensee evaluation to be completed by December 31, 2014, for CEUS [central and eastern United States] plants whose re-evaluated hazard exceeds the current design basis for the safe shutdown earthquake hazard level.” See the May 9, 2014 Letter from NRC to All Power Reactor Licensees and Holders of Construction Permits in Active or Deferred Status on the Enclosed List re: Screening and Prioritization Results Regarding Information Pursuant to Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations 50.54(f) Regarding Seismic Hazard Re-Evaluations for Recommendation 2.1 of the Near-Term Task Force Review of Insights From the Fukushima Daiichi Accident.
Founded in 1985, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy promotes responsible energy choices that work to address the impacts of global climate change and ensure clean, safe and healthy communities throughout the Southeast. Learn more at www.cleanenergy.org.