Negin: U.S. Must Address Nuclear Safety Issues

Posted October 3, 2011 at 4:59pm

If the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan earlier this year was a wake-up call to take a closer look at the U.S. nuclear industry, the recent earthquake in Virginia was a snooze alarm in case anyone fell back asleep.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows the 5.8-magnitude quake may have shaken the North Anna nuclear plant in Mineral, Va., located 12 miles from the epicenter, twice as hard as it was designed to withstand.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to issue its final inspection report on the plant’s status later this month. In the meantime, the facility remains shut down.

Given what happened in Japan, one would expect the parties responsible for overseeing the nuclear industry — the president, Members of Congress and the NRC — to take a deep breath and reassess U.S. reactor safety, especially because 31 reactors here are similar to those at Fukushima.

In some respects, they are doing that. On March 30, President Barack Obama reassured the public that he is determined to ensure that nuclear power is safe and asked the NRC to conduct a “comprehensive safety review.” Shortly thereafter, Congress held a number of hearings and the NRC created an internal task force that released a set of recommendations in mid-July.

So what should the NRC do to strengthen the safety and security of the 104 reactors currently operating around the country?

First, the agency needs to acknowledge that a Fukushima-like accident could happen here. Granted, it is unlikely that a U.S. nuclear reactor would be hit by a one-two punch of an earthquake and tsunami, but the main crisis the Fukushima Daiichi plant faced — the loss of primary and backup power — could be triggered by other natural phenomena, such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado or ice storm.

Backup emergency power that keeps cooling systems running could fail here. Spent fuel pools at U.S. nuclear plants are more crowded than those in Japan, and, as in Japan, they are not protected as robustly as reactors. And evacuation planning here is open to the same criticism levied at the Japanese government, which was unprepared to deal with a real-world nuclear accident.

In mid-July, the Union of Concerned Scientists offered two dozen recommendations to the NRC.

We urged the agency to require plant owners to have the resources to provide backup emergency power for much longer than four hours as well as to transfer spent fuel from storage pools to less-vulnerable dry casks after five years, when it is cool enough to move, and tailor the current, one-size-fits-all 10-mile-radius emergency planning zones around plants to local conditions.

More recently, the UCS launched a public education campaign on nuclear safety that points out that more than 120 million Americans live within 50 miles of an aging nuclear power reactor — the evacuation zone the U.S. government recommended for Americans living in Japan near Fukushima Daiichi.

The NRC task force did recommend plant owners establish a minimum “coping time” of eight hours for the loss of all AC power and a coping time of 72 hours for cooling the reactor core and spent fuel pools. But it did not address the issue of transferring spent fuel from pools to dry casks, and it insisted that the 10-mile emergency planning zone is adequate.

Obama requested a comprehensive review, but the task force’s report was limited to the specifics of the Fukushima accident.

Conversely, many of the UCS’ recommendations address problems that have been festering for decades. Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, for example, there are still a dozen U.S. nuclear plants that have not completed all NRC-mandated security upgrades.

Likewise, at least 45 reactors still do not comply with a fire protection regulation the agency originally established in 1980 and amended in 2004. This is not a trivial violation. Fire represents 50 percent of the risk of reactor core damage. In other words, fire hazards are the equivalent of the risk from all other causes of core damage combined.

If past is prologue, I fear that whatever new or strengthened safeguards the NRC finally implements in response to Fukushima will be too little, too late.

The NRC has for too long been a toothless watchdog, and unless it moves swiftly and decisively to address the safety problems revealed by Fukushima — as well as other, long-term problems — the tens of millions of Americans who live near nuclear plants will continue to be at risk.

Elliott Negin is director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists.