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New U.S. Regulations Proposed in Response to Fukushima

A task force calls for safety upgrades, but the nuclear industry worries about their cost.
July 15, 2011

Shortly after the nuclear disaster at power plants in Fukushima, Japan, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that U.S. reactors are safe. Now a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) task force created in response to the disaster is recommending extensive safety upgrades to deal with problems like the ones seen in Japan, although it also said that nuclear plants pose “no imminent risk.”

One of the biggest problems at Fukushima was extended loss of power at the plant that shut down cooling systems, requiring plant operators to take extreme measures such as pumping seawater directly into the reactor, which in turn resulted in the release of radioactive seawater into the environment.

In the U.S., nuclear power plants are typically equipped to operate without grid power for four to eight hours. The new report suggests plants be required to have systems for keeping the reactor and spent fuel pools cooled for at least 72 hours without outside electricity.

The report also recommends updating flood and earthquake assessments after 10 years, rewriting regulations to make them clearer, and conducting training exercises that simulate problems at more than one reactor at a time.

One of the other big issues raised by Fukushima is what to do with spent nuclear fuel, which is currently packed into cooling pools at most nuclear power plants. In Japan, spent fuel in such pools overheated after water escaped. Spent fuel pools can hold more radioactive material than the reactor, and most of the fuel has had a chance to cool off significantly, making it easier to manage than fuel in the reactor.

The task force recommended upgrading the ability to refill these pools at U.S. plants, and the introduction of instrumentation for monitoring them. But it did not recommend that spent fuel be moved more quickly into dry cask storage, which does not require water for cooling, as some experts have advised.

Some experts called for more safety improvements, the Los Angeles Times noted:

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group, issued its own set of recommendations Wednesday that would go much further than the NRC’s. It suggested that U.S. nuclear plants be prepared for extreme events. The organization also would require nuclear plants to store more of their spent fuel in dry casks, rather than pools that can overheat in an accident.

It also was critical of the NRC’s methodology, noting that it met with industry officials but not outside groups.

“We were somewhat disappointed that the task force did not meet with the public during its deliberations,” said David Lochbaum, an official at the union.

Meanwhile, the nuclear industry called for more study before any new rules are implemented. It’s worried about the implication of some subtle wording in the report that could lead to much higher costs for nuclear power, according to the The Wall Street Journal:

The panel also proposed essentially setting aside a 1988 rule that has protected the nuclear-power industry against costly upgrades. The industry has used the rule, which requires benefits to public safety to be balanced against industry costs, to beat back regulatory changes it didn’t like.

Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer for the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute, said the proposal to set aside the cost-protection rule amounted to “sweeping change.” The NRC “will have to think long and hard,” he added, before embarking on such a “major policy shift.”…

The cost-protection rule was created to shield the nuclear sector after its costs spiraled out of control because of the NRC’s reaction to the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania. Billions of dollars of added costs were imposed on the nuclear-power sector, which the industry said stalled its growth for more than two decades.

The cost-protection rule adopted in 1988 has insulated the industry against major upgrades without proof that human health benefits exceeded those costs. In the calculation, a human life was valued at about $3 million. Critics say the rule undervalues human lives, noting that other federal agencies place a value on a human life of between $5 million and $9 million for the purpose of cost-benefit calculations in other areas.

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