The first rules for U.S. reactors imposed in response to last year’s nuclear disaster in Japan are fueling a debate over the adequacy and cost of the measures.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday approved three orders to improve safety at the nation’s 104 operating reactors, issued following a triple meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, which occurred a year ago this weekend. While the NRC’s orders “are necessary to address the major gaps in the nuclear power safety net,” they “do not go far enough,” Jim Riccio, a nuclear-energy analyst in Washington for anti-nuclear group Greenpeace USA, said in an e-mail.
The rules include a requirement for nuclear plants owned by companies such as Exelon Corp. (EXC) and Entergy Corp. (ETR) to have a plan to indefinitely survive blackouts. Reactor owners also must have adequate instruments to monitor spent-fuel cooling pools. Another order calls for older reactors with General Electric Co (GE).-design containment structures similar to those that failed at Fukushima to have sturdier venting systems to prevent damage to reactor cores.
One question for regulators: “As we put additional regulatory structures in place, are we getting some compensatory safety enhancements for a reasonable cost?” Dale Klein, a former NRC chairman, said in a phone interview yesterday.
The new the rules, which must be implemented by 2016, are exempt from an agency cost-benefit analysis, though future regulations may not be. A potential requirement for some reactor containments to have “filtered” vents to prevent radiation leaks may not be as cost effective as additional pumps and safety valves, said Klein.
The nuclear industry has already begun to implement a plan to install commercial-grade gear, including portable pumps and generators at plants to provide an additional layer of safety.
“The industry is trying to do it on the cheap and not have safety-grade equipment but who knows if the commercial-grade will function in the midst of a meltdown,” Riccio said.
Regulators should also require reactor owners to remove radioactive waste from cooling pools and place in ``dry cask'' storage containers, he said.
“The commission has taken a significant step forward on our post-Fukushima efforts,” NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in a statement yesterday. The orders take effect immediately, and the agency is also weighing a dozen recommendations from a task force to prevent a disaster similar to Fukushima from occurring at U.S. plants.
Jaczko, who wants all rules resulting from the disaster to be implemented by 2016, has said it’s “not acceptable” for reviews of seismic risks at plants to be completed in the latter half of the decade, which the NRC staff has proposed. Industry officials have said there aren’t enough technical resources to complete the assessments by Jaczko’s deadline.
The five commissioners are scheduled to testify on the orders March 15 at a hearing of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, led by Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who faults the agency for taking too long to develop new safety rules.
Reactor owners have agreed, as part of an industry plan, to begin installing emergency equipment at power plants. Companies will order the gear or have contracts in place by the end of the month, according to a March 6 statement from the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The order on equipment for blackouts calls for a phased-in approach, with power plants initially using portable equipment to keep reactors cool during an electric failure, supplemented by gear that can be shipped in “to sustain those functions indefinitely.”
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, offered a plan in December that NRC officials said helped to speed the regulatory process. The industry may spend as much as $100 million to buy and install emergency equipment, including pumps and generators, at power plants. Reactor owners have already ordered or acquired more than 300 pieces of commercial-grade gear, according to the industry group.
The industry’s plan is “reasonable” and contains no “hidden agenda” to try to stave off more expensive regulations later, said Klein, the former NRC chairman.
“Weneed the NRC to be an industry watchdog, not an industry lapdog,” Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement yesterday.