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U.S. Nuclear Safety Progress Remains Sluggish Following Fukushima Disaster, Part I

Jordan Weaver

Posted March 12, 2013

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Since the Fukushima nuclear incident now two years ago, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has made slow yet incremental progress to address the vulnerabilities in U.S. nuclear reactors that were identified following the Japanese disaster. NRDC’s nuclear program is evaluating key areas of the federal government’s regulatory work, particularly those lessons from Fukushima that were determined to have near-term priority. We are also highlighting those recommended improvements to nuclear safety that are being diminished and narrowed with respect to their original intent and scope. Here are a number of our findings:

-          NRC staff recommended protective measures of filters in addition to hardened vents for boiling water reactors (BWR) with Mark I & Mark II containments— despite the fact that the BWR is a vulnerable reactor design highlighted in the Fukushima aftermath, implementation of this protection is delayed.

-          Only marginal improvements to emergency procedures for spent fuel pool safety will be required, and in some cases emergency preparedness will be diminished, such as in spent fuel pool instrumentation.

-          Station blackout (SBO) safety procedures are still being reviewed by the NRC. The NRDC Nuclear Program recommends that SBO rulemaking should be done not as a patchwork of rules but as a comprehensive package.

-          Additional nuclear power plant inspections, or walkdowns, were conducted with respect to seismic and flooding hazards in the past year, revealing safety gaps and deficiencies in preparedness that highlight the importance of swift and robust implementation of these protections.

Overall, we find that the implementation of the lessons learned from Fukushima to be too slow for comfort. While some progress has been made in the last two years, the NRDC urges the NRC to focus on its regulatory mission to protect the health and safety of Americans living near nuclear facilities, and not be pressured by industry or by members of Congress to consider profit margins over safety margins. In this post, we’ll discuss some details concerning the first two items above and provide a follow-up post that elaborates on the remaining items.

Progress on Reliable Hardened Vents and Filtration Protective Measures is Sound but Slow

During the Fukushima accident, plant workers had significant difficulty in operating the containment vents in an effort to lower the pressure, which could have prevented containment failure, the escape and detonation of hydrogen gas, and some of the difficulties in injecting coolant water into the reactor pressure vessel. Therefore, as a U.S. regulatory measure, in March 2012 the NRC issued Order EA-12-050 requiring the installation of reliable hardened vent systems at BWR facilities with Mark I and Mark II containments. The agency focused on BWR containments to address a design vulnerability: a small structural volume that can easily become over pressurized during severe accidents.

After Fukushima, the NRC required operators of these BWRs to design and install venting systems (or update existing vents) in order to reduce the likelihood that emergency measures intended to prevent or mitigate the overheating of a reactor core couldn’t be carried out. The NRC is requiring BWR venting system upgrades to be completed by no later than December 31, 2016: almost five years after the issuance of the order. Nuclear plant licensees were required to submit an “Overall Integrated Plan” by February 28, 2013 that describes how compliance with this order will be achieved. An NRC webpage is dedicated to tracking the industry’s response to NRC requirements with links to documents and associated NRC evaluations. While there hasn’t been any activity on this site for months, the Overall Integrated Plans for the three orders are beginning to trickle in on the agency’s online document database, ADAMS.

In the months following the vent order, the NRC responded to requests from numerous public interest groups to also mandate that the resulting venting systems would implement filtration systems to reduce radionuclide contamination in the gas released from containment during a nuclear accident. The NRC commissioners requested that staff provide them with information, options, and a recommendation on whether to impose new requirements for these containment venting systems, including such requirements as engineered filter systems and operation capability during severe accidents. The NRDC commends the NRC staff for their efforts in conducting a thorough evaluation of potential benefits to the vent order, and their endorsement of the option that requires filtered venting systems capable of operation under severe accident conditions.

The staff’s report to the commissioners also included a draft for a newly proposed order that encompasses their recommendations, but unfortunately implies that the clock on implementing these regulatory safeguards would be reset, and further extend deadlines associated with vent upgrades. Licensees would now have an extra year to provide their overall integrated plans and full compliance with the order would also be extended to the end of 2017, one year after the initial deadline and nearly 7 years after the accident. Additional delay by the NRC in implementing this important safety protection is unacceptable.

Contributing to the slow walk on this issue, since the staff’s endorsement of filters in November 2012, the nuclear industry has been relentless in coordinating private meetings with Commissioners and lobbying for Congressional pressure on the NRC to second guess its own work and vote against the filters. The push back started with claims that the industry should be allowed to explore and develop strategies that pre-empt the need for engineered filters by focusing on preventing the uncovering of the core and subsequent meltdown scenarios that could necessitate venting. The proposed “performance-based” approach, or Option 4 in the staff’s report, would allow each operator to develop their own strategy. However when the staff analyzed this option, they concluded that this approach would take considerably more time, while introducing increased uncertainty and complexity in the near-term without necessarily guaranteeing any benefit over requiring filters now.

Spent Fuel Pool Safety Instrumentation Still Needs Improvement

Another order issued in March 2012 by the NRC required all current and future licensees to improve the instrumentation for spent fuel storage pools, asking for integrated plans by February 28, 2013 and full compliance by December 31, 2016. However, the current order still omits key safety features to avoid the mistakes made at Fukushima in monitoring and recording water temperatures and local area radiation levels in spent fuel pools – mistakes identified by both the NRC Task Force and the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS).

Regrettably, the industry’s influence can be seen in nearly all stages of this regulatory undertaking. Where the Task Force recommended multiple layers of safety information, the industry argued that simply knowing the water level at a handful of discreet points would be sufficient. Thus, the NRC’s order repeats this language. Where the staff was tasked with writing a guidance document that outlines successful implementation, they opted instead to endorse the document written by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear industry lobbying group. The order and guidance also relax any hard requirement that at least one channel of pool information be available in the control room, and instead provided exceptions that allow the new instrument displays to potentially be installed near the pool itself. This is counterintuitive to the findings of the Task Force who identified the unnecessary risks to personnel and wasted time as a result of having to send plant workers to various locations around the site during an emergency. Multiple groups, including NRDC, have continually highlighted these concerns but it now seems that only marginal improvements are to be made governing the emergency procedures that are intended to ensure spent fuel pool safety.

The NRC needs to speed its process on hardened, filtered vents for BWRs and spent fuel pool instrumentation, as well as  mandate the remaining safety upgrades from Fukushima lessons learned without letting industry water them down.

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Comments (Add yours)

Tom GurdzielMar 12 2013 08:35 PM

Perhaps the main lesson that should be learned from Fukushima Daiichi related to the (BWR) elevated spent fuel pools is that they contain too much fuel. Our US BWR elevated spent fuel pools also contain too much spent fuel and this problem has been consistently and scrupulously avoided.

Sam RamierezMar 16 2013 03:27 PM

John Coggin wrote an interesting piece for International Policy Digest focusing on the United States’ nuclear energy policy and need to end subsidies for the nation’s nuclear program.

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