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NRC Task Force on Lessons of Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Reveals Serious Gaps in US Reactor Safety Regulation

Christopher Paine

Posted July 18, 2011

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As the four severely damaged reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station continue their slow progression toward a cold shutdown condition, more has become known about how the accident unfolded. States, regulatory agencies and experts around the world are increasingly turning their attention to the lessons learned from the accident and its implications for nuclear power in their respective countries.

On July 12, 2011 the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued its report: “Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century: The Near-Term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Accident.”

This report summarizes the results of a swift “90 Day Review” of US reactor safety that the NRC pledged to conduct in response to President’s Obama’s request to review the safety of all operational reactors in the US commercial fleet, a request which the President made to the NRC in the early, frightening days of the Japanese disaster.

NRDC commends the Task Force for its initial review of the condition of the US nuclear fleet and the adequacy of the current US regulatory framework in light of the tragedy at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. In this review the Task Force identifies both systemic deficiencies and specific problems in how the NRC protects citizens from the consequences of nuclear accidents.

The Task Force’s first overarching recommendation is a remarkably strong criticism of the current regulatory framework: “The Task Force recommends establishing a logical, systematic, and coherent regulatory framework for adequate protection that appropriately balances defense-in-depth and risk considerations.” The implied premise of this primary recommendation – that the current NRC regulatory framework falls short of being “logical, systematic or coherent” – suggests the public should not have high confidence in the safety of the 104 currently-operating nuclear power plants in the United States. The 90 Day Review summarizes disturbing problems with the effectiveness of the NRC’s efforts to minimize nuclear accident risks stemming from seismic hazards, flooding and fires, station blackout, hydrogen gas production, the vulnerability of spent fuel pools and multi-unit accidents.

Despite overarching recommendations aimed at “Ensuring Protection,” “Enhancing Mitigation,” and “Strengthening Emergency Preparedness,” the Task Force nonetheless, asserts that business as usual should continue at US nuclear power plants during what will be a lengthy and uncertain regulatory overhaul.

To the contrary, lessons learned from the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident warrant immediate regulatory responses and enforcement actions, particularly regarding the 31 US reactors of similar design to those in Japan that underwent core melt and explosions– the 23 US BWRs with Mark I containment and the 8 with Mark II containments.

In addition, NRC consideration of power up-rates and license extensions for operational US reactors should be held in abeyance until the full lessons of Fukushima have been absorbed, the feasibility of all necessary safety upgrades demonstrated, and then these upgrades mandated for each reactor involved in a power up-rate or license extension proceeding.  As part of these processes, the likelihood of successful evacuation, the potential economic consequences, and the effect of off-site radiological contamination must be assessed, particularly for US reactors whose surrounding population density (within a 50-mile radius) is comparable to, or larger than, that at Fukushima Dai-ichi.  Where prompt large-scale evacuation appears infeasible in the face of radiological consequences, or intolerable levels of economic damage may result, license extensions and power up-rates must be denied and the reactors phased out.

NRDC notes that during the 90 Day Review the Task Force  consulted with the nuclear industry but there was an absence of any meaningful consultation with other outside experts or the public.  In moving forward to the next “six month” stage of the post-Fukushima nuclear safety review, the extent of outside involvement remains unclear. On July 15, 2011, NRDC was contacted by the NRC about possible involvement on an external stakeholder panel for the six month review. While we need substantially more information to make any judgment on the adequacy of what the NRC has in mind, extensive public participation must be an intrinsic part of the next stage of the review.

NRDC has previously suggested that the NRC direct the Staff to document, for each of the 104 operational reactors, all deviations and exemptions from the current “best practices” as set forth in the most up-to-date regulations, regulatory guides, standard review plans, information bulletins and the like, including exemptions from license conditions granted pursuant to 10 CFR §50.12.  By providing this information prior to the onset of the longer-term review, and seeking initial public comment on the scope of its six-month review, the NRC would be promoting a far less insular approach than what was practiced in the initial 90-day review. If we are to improve the safety of existing nuclear power plants, following  the Japanese disaster and a reinvigorated US inspection effort, understanding and precisely documenting those variances and exemptions from current best practices will be a critical element, especially in terms of public transparency and accountability for the NRC’s future enforcement efforts.

The Task Force explicitly states that “the NRC’s safety approach is incomplete without a strong program for dealing with the unexpected, including severe accidents.” Moreover, this group states that the NRC has established severe accident requirements for new reactors, and that taking a similar action with regard to operating reactors would promote increased safety. Nonetheless, the recommendations in certain instances could remain just that, with others possibly being implemented in rulemaking efforts that could take years to resolve.

Following the events at Fukushima Dai-ichi, the historical frequency of core melt accidents worldwide does not measure up to the safety objectives of the NRC. On the whole, today’s aging operational nuclear reactors are not sufficiently safe. If nuclear power is to have a long term future, older obsolete reactor designs should be phased out rather than having their licenses extended, and the NRC should revisit whether reactors currently under construction and those on the drawing board are safe enough. The 90 Day Review is a first step in this direction, but a lot of work lies ahead.

Author’s note: NRDC Nuclear Program Staff members Matt McKinzie, Thomas Cochran, and Jordan Weaver contributed to the preparation of this blog.

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