While it may be easy to dismiss last year’s nuclear accident in Japan as an unpredictable act of God or even the result of irresponsible actors on the other side of the globe, the calamity raises the question, are U.S. nuclear plant operators and their regulators taking all possible threats seriously?
When a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on March 11, 2011, the world watched as water poured over the plant, knocking out its power and reactor-cooling capabilities and sending radiation into the air. Ostensibly, it looked like the hand of Mother Nature. But the truth is the event was far from unthinkable. And neither are such events in the United States.
Indeed, an unexpected 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Virginia last year exceeded the design specifications of the North Anna nuclear plant about 90 miles southwest of Washington. Though the North Anna plant’s reactors remained intact after the Aug. 23 quake, critics say that our luck might be running out.
Nuclear regulators, scientists, and operators all agree that the probability of both an earthquake and tsunami hitting any U.S. nuclear plant is immeasurably low, but reactors in this country are still vulnerable to other disasters, according to a study from nuclear watchdog group the Union of Concerned Scientists, which criticizes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for dragging its feet post-Fukushima on safety issues.
NRC has worked on addressing some of the lessons learned from Japan, but most of its work since the accident has been mired in bureaucratic disagreements. The agency still has a long way to go.
“This is very early on,” NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in an interview at the agency’s headquarters in Rockville last week. “If we’re thinking of football—if your goal is to play in the Super Bowl, we’re probably still in the divisional finals here, maybe the first quarter of the divisional finals.”
Since a special NRC task force came out with 12 recommendations for U.S. actions in July, the agency has picked only the low-hanging fruit.
All U.S. nuclear plants were ordered on Friday to make high-priority upgrades, such as getting better prepared for power outages and adding more reliable instruments to measure water levels in cooling tanks, where spent nuclear fuel is stored. Another order issued late last week requires that certain reactors similar to the Fukushima plant improve their venting systems in order to prevent or mitigate core damage.
Though these initial safeguards are mandatory, plant operators have until the end of 2016 to comply. Meanwhile, NRC has yet to address the rest of the safety upgrades recommended after Fukushima.
Jaczko, who has supported a five-year deadline on the implementation of all post-Fukushima safeguards, noted some concern over whether the commission and the nuclear industry can even hit that mark.
“Right now, what we’ve got so far, we’re pushing that five years a little bit,” he told National Journal last week.
“I don’t think it benefits the agency, I don’t think it benefits the industry, it doesn’t benefit the American people if we let these things linger,” Jaczko said. “Because if we linger, we lose our focus, we lose our continuity on what’s important and what needs to be done.”
In addition to criticizing the slow pace of reforms, the Union of Concerned Scientists also questioned NRC for putting off action on a major recommendation to clarify the agency’s “patchwork” of regulations and force plants to prepare for “beyond-design-basis” events like a major earthquake.
But Dale Klein, a former NRC chairman who cochaired the American Nuclear Society’s special committee on Fukushima, is not that concerned.
“I think for the United States, we’ve done a very a good job of looking at those ‘beyond-design-basis’ events,” said Klein. “Both the industry and the regulator have done a good job of looking at those.”