June 30: Japan Impact in U.S.

This blog was co-authored by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Mandy Hancock, SACE's former High Risk Energy Organizer.

Guest Blog | July 1, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

The ongoing disaster in Japan at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant has launched the nuclear debate to the forefront of energy discussions even here in the United States.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently launched a 90-day task force to assess the safety of the U.S. nuclear reactor fleet and to determine what measures the agency may need to implement in order to ensure that regulations reflect lessons from the Fukushima crisis. Initial findings indicate that there are regulatory gaps in inspections and re-licensing procedures at older reactors, which may not be equipped to handle extreme events. Several troubling findings are specifically related to training and emergency preparedness. More than 40 percent of all U.S. nuclear plants lack proper integration of safety guidelines into periodic reviews and revisions of operating procedures; only 61 percent periodically include these guidelines in their emergency drills.

Despite the initial findings of obvious regulatory gaps, Martin Vigilio, the deputy executive director of operations for the NRC, asserted his faith in the current system last week during his presentation to the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS). “We continue to have confidence in the safety of the U.S. fleet without question,” he said. In apparent contrast to this statement, however, he identified several regulatory and safety gaps, including ill-maintained or missing equipment meant to control large fires or terrorist attacks and lack of consistency for ‘voluntary industry initiatives’ meant to increase safety measures. Pressed by ACRS Chairman Abdel-Khalik, Mr. Virgilio acknowledged that the U.S. is in a similar position to the one in Japan; the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report earlier this month raising concerns about complacency by Japanese regulators which we believe mirrors the situation here. He agreed that voluntary initiatives are unevenly applied, lack strictness and have not been reviewed or updated since 1992.

Mr. Virgilio also mentioned that emergency preparedness planning is currently the responsibility of each state. He expressed concern about the availability of training and resources to ensure that state-level decision makers are properly prepared, and also about the apparent lack of understanding about potassium iodide pills‘ potential to prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine into the thyroid gland. You can access the complete transcript of the June 23, 2011 ACRS meeting on Fukushima and the presentation slides here.

The Associated Press (AP) released a scathing four-part series based on a year-long investigative report on the effectiveness of the NRC, which SACE discussed in a recent blog post. The series identifies a myriad of serious safety and regulatory integrity issues that are especially frightening in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In Part 1, the AP found that the NRC has been weakening safety requirements so that aging reactors can keep operating and be re-licensed (relicensing extends the operating license by 20 years beyond the original 40-year license). The original safety standards apparently are now considered “overly conservative” by the NRC. If temperature caps or valve leakage standards were found to be “too difficult to maintain,” the allowances were simply raised multiple times to effectively turn a non-compliant reactor into a compliant one.

Part 2 finds that tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that the human body can easily absorb, has leaked from 48 of 65 reactor sites. NRC’s voluntary “Groundwater Protection Initiative” lacks the necessary assessment components that would guarantee prompt discovery of tritium leaks.

Part 3 focuses on evacuation planning and population growth. Siting nuclear reactors in remote, rural areas was one feature of the NRC’s “multiple layer accident safeguard” philosophy. But despite explosive growth around many reactors, no new evacuation plans have been made to accommodate the larger populations. Florida’s Crystal River and North Carolina’s Shearon Harris reactors are specifically mentioned in the report, along with Oyster Creek in New Jersey and Indian Point near Manhattan, as having some of the steepest population increases:

“For example, federal regulators predicted in 1973 that the 50-mile population around the Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida would expand from 155,900 to only 381,000 by 2020. ‘The basic rural character of the area is not expected to change in the coming 40 years,’ the government predicted … By 2010 – 10 years ahead of the predicted timetable – the population had already multiplied by six, to over 1 million.”

Concern over the feasibility of evacuating the area only adds to the complicated and expensive problems already plaguing Progress Energy’s troubled Crystal River reactor.

The final AP report elaborates on how the NRC colluded with the industry to “rewrite history” by denying that the original 40-year operation license limit was based on design limitations, and instead claiming it was more the result of political and economic reasoning. NRC seems to have a “rubber stamp” approval approach to re-licensing aging reactors; they rely too heavily on information submitted in the utility applications rather than conducting their own independent analysis. The fact that the NRC has not denied a single re-licensing application, even for troubled nuclear plants, illustrates this flaw. In fact, the NRC approved a license extension for the oldest operating plant in the country, Oyster Creek, just a week before tritium leaks were found. They also approved the extension of the controversial Vermont Yankee reactor after massive tritium leaks were found emanating from underground pipes that the operator denied existed.

Currently, Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation is suing the state of Vermont for the state senate’s 2010 vote against a license extension for Vermont Yankee. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has charged the NRC with holding a secret vote to urge the Justice Department to support Entergy in the case. When Sanders questioned NRC Chairman Jaczko on the issue, he refused to comment, claiming that was a “privileged matter.” Sanders sees the NRC’s intervention as an overstepping of bounds. According to Sanders, NRC’s “authority is safety, it’s not to tell states like Vermont what they should be doing economically in terms of their energy future.” Sanders also reacted to the AP report, joining U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in calling for a congressional probe into nuclear safety.

The NRC issued a letter in response to the AP report, claiming to appreciate the additional attention brought on the agency while disagreeing with many of the allegations made in the report and maintaining that it is an effective regulator. The  Tennessee Valley Authority agrees, and continues to pursue new nuclear reactors as a major contributor to future energy production, in spite of the many risks.

As this debate continues, two nuclear power plants in Nebraska are dealing with the floods of the Missouri River. Fort Calhoun is surrounded by water and has relied on backup power to keep cooling systems running. Further north, the Cooper reactor is also threatened. Fortunately the Union of Concerned Scientists, often a vocal critic of the NRC, provided a good evaluation last week of the NRC’s actions at Fort Calhoun, stating that a 2010 NRC inspection thankfully led to safety upgrades that are currently protecting the reactor from the flood. It’s not often UCS offers kudos to the NRC. As the flooding continues, the people and communities dealing with this disaster remain in our thoughts.

So the process can work, but it certainly seems broken more often than not. Along with our allies SACE continues to urge the Obama administration and the NRC to suspend all licensing procedures until all of the new information presented by the Fukushima disaster, the AP investigative series, and our country’s own natural disasters can be fully processed and integrated. Our future is at stake.

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