The “patchwork” of safety rules governing U.S. nuclear power plants is in need of a comprehensive overhaul, according to a report commissioned by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and sent to the agency’s five commissioners on Tuesday.
The 90-page report, conducted in response to the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant this year, concludes that “a sequence of events like the Fukushima incident is unlikely to occur in the United States,” but that the disaster highlighted the need for a regulatory security framework for nuclear power plants; more safety procedures to protect U.S. plants from floods, fires, earthquakes, and blackouts; improved spent-fuel storage; and more.
The nuclear industry fears that the Fukushima disaster could lead to a freeze in the development of U.S. nuclear power plants, as did the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. The report notes that there was no similarly thorough regulatory review and overhaul after Three Mile Island, and that “there will likely be over 100 nuclear power plants operating throughout the United States for decades to come.” Nuclear power generates about 20 percent of U.S. electricity.
Nuclear-power advocates criticized the report, with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, saying in a statement that "a nuclear accident in Japan should not automatically be viewed as an indictment of U.S. institutional structures and nuclear safety requirements." While he acknowledged that some changes may be needed, Inhofe cautioned that “sweeping revisions are premature without first taking into account the full extent of the differences between the United States' and Japan's nuclear safety regulations.... As this report comes to light, I am concerned that it will become another weapon in the Obama Administration's attack on affordable energy, or an excuse to unleash a regulatory agenda that will only harm our economy."
The report of the nuclear “Near-Term Task Force” is intended to represent a first snapshot of the safety reforms needed throughout the U.S. nuclear industry. The task force was convened in March to conduct a methodical overview and review of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safety procedures with a specific focus on safety concerns raised by the Japanese disaster.
Overall, the report calls on the U.S. nuclear industry to strengthen and unify its disparate regulatory elements -- especially a roster of voluntary guidelines on how to manage severe accidents.
Several of the report’s 12 recommendations focused on improving the response to on-site emergencies like those that happened at the Fukushima plant. There, backup generators failed to kick in after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out power, causing dangerous overheating in pools of cooling water in which spent nuclear fuel is stored. The damaged spent fuel also caused water to drain, allowing the hot, radioactive rods to ignite. The new report recommends denying U.S. nuclear facilities operating licenses unless they can demonstrate the ability to deal with a complete loss of power for eight hours, using backup generators, and to be able to provide cooling to the radioactive core and spent fuel pool for 72 hours.
The report also recommends a thorough reform of how radioactive spent-fuel rods are stored on-site at U.S. power plants -- echoing calls by nuclear watchdog groups.
The meltdown at Fukushima was triggered by the ignition of tightly packed spent fuel rods, but the report notes that toxic spent fuel rods are far more densely and dangerously packed in U.S. plants. It notes that each of the four Fukushima pools contained 292 to 1,331 spent nuclear fuel rods -- while the storage capacity of U.S. spent-fuel pools ranges from less than 2,000 to nearly 5,000, usually filled up to three-quarters of capacity.
The report also calls for major reforms in how spent fuel is stored at U.S. nuclear reactors, which is likely to spur the long-running debate in the U.S. about the lack of a permanent storage site for nuclear waste.
The NRC is expected to hold a public hearing on the report next week, and to continue to commission further investigation into the implications for the U.S. industry of the Japanese disaster.