Journalism in the Public Interest

NRC Panel Calls for Safety Upgrade After Fukushima

The Japan Task Force, made up of expert staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that U.S. nuclear plants are safe but called for potentially sweeping change—including upgrades at many plants and broad regulatory changes to address low-risk, high-consequence disasters.


Members of a Japanese government investigative panel inspect the damaged building housing at the No.3 reactor at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant in Japan on June 17, 2011. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Last month, we reported on the widespread deficiencies found in the procedures and equipment the country's 104 commercial nuclear reactors are supposed to rely on in the event of a catastrophe like the one that hit the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant in Japan.

This week, a special task force of Nuclear Regulatory Commission experts proposed to do something about those problems and other safety issues raised by the Fukushima disaster, where the fuel in three reactors melted down and an unknown amount of radioactive materials escaped into the surroundings.

The NRC's Japan Task Force said that U.S. nuclear plants are safe but called for potentially sweeping and costly changes to protect against catastrophic events like earthquakes and long-term blackouts.

The panel's 83-page report calls for upgrades at many plants and broad revisions to what it called a "patchwork" of NRC regulations governing catastrophic events that need to be streamlined.

Groups ranging from nuclear industry representatives to nuclear power critics and regulators cautioned that the NRC report is only the first step in what will almost certainly be a long process of adopting lessons from the Fukushima disaster, where three reactors partially melted down.

"We have a lot of work in front of us," said Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer for the nuclear industry's trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. The watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists also on Wednesday released its own set of safety recommendations in light of Fukushima's experience.

"If a U.S reactor were faced with a similar challenge, maybe not the exact combo of earthquake and tsunami, but some other natural disaster or human error, it's unlikely that the story would have a happier ending," David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who works with the group, said in a statement.

ProPublica has been tracking nuclear safety issues since the March disaster, including the risk posed by spent fuel pools and the results of NRC inspections that found flaws of varying severity with emergency equipment and disaster procedures at all but five of the 65 U.S. reactor sites.

The NRC Task Force, launched in April, is scheduled to present its report to the five-member commission on July 19. Among the 12 main recommendations:

The Task Force also called for a broad reworking of NRC regulations governing preparation and response for major disasters that can cause damage exceeding the design limitations of a plant.

The current system reflects NRC's piecemeal reaction to disasters, such as the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and the threat of a 9/11-style terror attack, over several decades, the report said. It should be replaced, the task force said, with a streamlined and "coherent regulatory framework."

Release of the report Wednesday touched off immediate debate about whether new rules would mean costly upgrades for nuclear companies and only a marginal safety benefit.

"Done poorly, they could significantly increase costs in the current operating fleet without improving safety one iota," Margaret Harding, an industry consultant, told Reuters. "Done well, and they will get at the real issues, eliminate the vagueness in the regulation, and improve safety."

Pietrangelo, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the companies expect there will be costs involved but that it was "way too early to speculate." He said nuclear companies already are mining the lessons from Fukushima and working on plans to extend their plants' ability to operate during a blackout.

Ed Lyman, an expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the Task Force's recommendations "a good first step" but said the real test would be whether the commission follows them. "The devil is in the details," he said. "We are taking a wait and see approach."

Among other things, the UCS recommended that NRC extend the scope of its regulations to cover extreme, low-probability events; strengthen emergency planning; require plants to transfer spent fuel from storage pools to dry casks after five years; and bring all plants into compliance with fire rules.

harvey mandlin

July 19, 2011, 7:25 p.m.

Texas Nuke Plant Missing Meltdown Preventer Opens Anyway to save money (TRUE STORY)

At a Houston lost freight sale, I saw something that looked like Jules Vern’s Nautilus submarine. After lying in the warehouse, as legally declared “unclaimed cargo” for over one year, I had 48 hours to find out what it was, what it did, and what it was worth before it would be liquidated.

After a fevered search through old cargo records, obscure trade papers, and calls around the world and no sleep, I knew – it was a Boron injection pump, a $24 million fail-safe to shut down a nuclear plant in a disaster.

Houston Light & Power and Westinghouse didn’t have it, but were starting up the reactor in 3 days, and secretly omitting the crucial missing fail-safe. With billions of dollars invested, they’d put countless lives at risk to save about a million dollars a day in interest costs.
A rip snortin’ yarn? No, unfortunately, it’s a (TRUE STORY)

The South Texas Project Electric Generating Station (also known as STPEGS, South Texas Project or STP), is a nuclear power station southwest of Bay City, Texas, United States. The STP occupies a 12,200 acre (49 km²) site on the Colorado River about 90 miles (145 km) southwest of Houston. It consists of two Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactors and is cooled by a 7,000-acre (28 km2) reservoir, which eliminates the need for cooling towers.
STP was the first nuclear power plant in Texas, beginning operation in 1988. In 1996, the two South Texas units were two of the top 20 electricity-generating nuclear units worldwide.
STP is unique in its design of the safety systems for the reactors. Each unit has three, rather than the customary two, fully independent emergency core-cooling systems (ECCS) and associated support systems. However the addition of the third safety train was not fully recognized and credited by nuclear safety regulations during the plant licensing process. The third ECCS system provides significant real-risk reduction, and the utility undertook efforts to gain regulatory recognition of these features. These efforts led in part to the plant’s engineering staff becoming early industry leaders in analytical risk modeling and real-time risk management during operations and maintenance activities.

I spoke to the manufacturer in Scotland. They said that, if they got an immediate order for another pump, it could not be completed in less than 18 – 24 months. They had no order from Texas and no one else in the world made them.

I listened to the NRC’s re-assurances on PBS Newshour tonight. But, where was the NRC then? How could they get to startup with the pump missing pump?

Full disclosure of my self interest: I co-wrote this story into a sort of caper–thriller seeking to make a film along the lines of “Erin Brockovich meets China Syndrome”. However, the story as related above is true.

Harvey mandlin

Aug. 10, 2011, 1:47 a.m.

Yes, really.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Nuclear Safety

Nuclear Safety

With the disaster in Japan, we're investigating questions about nuclear safety.

The Story So Far

Following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hydrogen explosions rocked three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Radioactive spent fuel stored in pools was also affected, especially at one reactor—the plant has a total of six—where multiple fires erupted. Evacuation orders were issued, potassium iodine tablets distributed, and plant employees used seawater and external electrical power to cool the stricken reactors, three of which had a partial core meltdown.

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