Groups Demand Nuclear Regulators Put Safety First

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | April 21, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

As the Japan nuclear disaster continues, concerned interests are collaborating to hold the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) accountable to its stated mission to “[ensure] that people and the environment are protected.”

Last week 45 groups and individuals across the U.S. joined in an unprecedented action to petition the NRC to suspend all nuclear reactor proceedings until a full analysis of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its implications on nuclear safety can be completed. Similar measures were taken by the NRC after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 but have yet to occur in spite of the ongoing events in Japan.

In addition to halting proceedings, the petition asks the NRC to establish an independent commission to do a separate analysis. A compelling declaration supporting the petition from expert witness Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), was filed earlier this week. An excerpt from his declaration states,

“Perhaps the most unprecedented feature of the Fukushima accident is that three reactors and four spent fuel pools have been stricken at the same site. In the entire history of nuclear power, there has not been another major accident (level 5 or above) that has involved multiple major sources of radioactivity — including multiple reactors and multiple spent fuel pools. For instance, the Fukushima Daiichi complex is the first to have experienced multiple hydrogen explosions in various facilities, all as part of the same event.”

The petition covers all areas of current reactor proceedings, specifying that each of these should be suspended:

  • All new reactor licensing, re-licensing, construction permitting, operation licensing, and design certification;
  • Proceedings and hearings relating to spent fuel pool related issues and NRC emergency response preparedness;
  • Design certification of the AP1000 reactor;
  • All licensing and rulemaking proceedings.

The petition also asks the NRC to conduct a safety analysis and other reviews to determine if the radiological releases in Japan present new and significant information that would impact Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Additionally, the petition urges the NRC to establish a timeline to achieve these tasks and to allow transparency and public access to proceedings, with ample time to comment. Listen to the press conference here and read an article in Bloomberg.

Earlier this month, the AP1000 Oversight Group, which consists of organizations from across the country including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, accused the NRC of fast-tracking the approval process for the flawed Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design. The Oversight Groups claims the NRC is ignoring recommendations from the agency’s own, long-serving lead structural engineer, Dr. John Ma. He filed a formal ‘nonconcurrence’ with the NRC last November, testifying that the type of concrete used in the design is so brittle it could shatter “like a glass cup” under various natural or man-made impacts. Other concerns include storage density for spent fuel pools, loss of offsite power, weak containment structure and problems with the design of the ‘passive’ cooling system. The group filed a petition, urging the NRC to follow the law and to suspend the design approval process to ensure sufficient consideration of the concerns of Dr. Ma and other experts.

The AP1000 reactor design has been chosen for by numerous utilities in the Southeast for proposed new reactor projects including: Progress in North Carolina and Florida, SCANA and Duke Energy in South Carolina, Southern Company in Georgia, Florida Power & Light in Florida and TVA in Alabama. The NRC issued its preliminary approval of the design in February.

Despite the legitimate issues raised in the petition, Southern Company says it is still fully committed to pushing forward with their plant to build two AP1000 reactors at their Plant Vogtle in Georgia, claiming they will incorporate ‘lessons learned’ from Japan.

View the AP1000 Oversight Group press release, petition and petition attachments. More information on the design flaws of the AP1000 reactor, as reported by nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, can be found here.

If the NRC is actually serious about protecting the public, it will carefully consider these petitions and put the safety of the American people first by temporarily suspending all current licensing proceedings until more can be learned from the ever-unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan.

Thus far the agency does not seem to be doing this as it marches ahead renewing the operating licenses for the 3-reactor Palo Verde plant in Arizona and ignores requests from the Diablo Canyon reactor operator in California, PG&E. As reported in the Ventura County Star, “A top regional official of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told a legislative committee Thursday that the agency intends to proceed with its safety and environmental analysis for extending the license of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, despite a request from the plant’s operator that the agency take no final action until after more thorough seismic studies are completed.”

This ignorance and arrogance at the NRC must stop. Not only are billions of dollars at risk but so too are the lives of thousands and thousands of people. Now is not the time to rush; it’s the perfect time for regulators, utilities, policymakers and all of us to take a step back, pause and consider and learn from world events.

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