Japan Syndrome: NRC on Hot Seat Over Nuclear Plant Safety
Citing Fukushima disaster, Democrats want agency to move quickly on task force recommendations
Around the State
Aging nuclear power plants and outdated regulations could combine for a Fukushima-style radioactive disaster in the United States, a Senate committee was warned Tuesday.
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission task force called the prospect of a Japanese scenario "unlikely," but the NRC panel's 82-page report also proposed a 12-step plan to expand and strengthen safety standards.
Senators at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing split along party lines, with Republicans hailing the nuclear industry's safety record while skeptical Democrats expressed urgency for tighter oversight.
"'Unlikely' isn't nearly good enough," declared Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Citing a recent Associated Press report alleging "weakened safety standards to keep aging reactors online," Sanders urged the NRC to move aggressively.
Adding fuel to the debate, an unpublished October 2010 NRC draft analysis of a hypothetical Fukushima-like disaster at a Pennsylvania nuclear plant projected nearly 1,000 cancer deaths within 50 miles of the plant, even if nearby residents were quickly evacuated.
Depending on weather conditions, the death toll could hit 10,000.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko on Tuesday said the task force found that "continued operation and continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety." But the panel indicated that the NRC’s "existing regulatory framework does not apply defense-in-depth and risk insights consistently."
With 104 nuclear power plants in 31 states -- including five in Florida, and four more proposed in the state -- the task force concluded that safety could and should be improved.
"Design basis external hazards were established during the construction permit phase for operating U.S. plants, and they are not typically revisited through the life of the plant. The last construction permit for an operating U.S. plant was issued in 1978, and for many plants, this was completed in the 1960s," Jaczko said.
"Since that time, there have been significant advancements in the state of knowledge and state of analysis methods for seismic and flooding hazards," he testified.
The task force concluded that "it is appropriate for licensees to re-evaluate the designs of existing nuclear power reactors to ensure that structures, systems and components important to safety will withstand such events without loss of capability to perform their intended safety function," Jaczko related.
FIRE ISSUES AND 'PROTECTION' ZONES AT FLORIDA PLANTS
Senators sparred vigorously over the scope and pace of regulatory reform. Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., pushed for a 90-day implementation of task force recommendations while Republican committee members generally argued for a more deliberate approach.
The NRC's five commissioners are in the middle, with some members calling for more staff information before acting.
For storm-prone Florida, whose reactors are on or near coastal regions, the stakes could be significant.
"All Florida plants have fire-protection problems," said Dave Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
He told Sunshine State News that pumps and fire protection equipment added at reactors in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks may not be protected in the event of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane.
"Much of that equipment is stored in nonrobust facilities that may not survive hurricanes," Lochbaum said.
UCS estimates that more than 40 reactors across the country do not comply with fire-protection regulations instituted in 1980 and amended in 2004.
Additionally, Florida's state and local authorities, as well as utilities, could incur larger costs if the NRC were to adopt enlarged population "protection" zones.
Currently, emergency planning zones extend 10 miles from Florida Power & Light's nuclear plants at Turkey Point and St. Lucie on the east coast and Progress Energy's Crystal River reactor on the west coast.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Japan stretched its evacuation and protection zone to 50 miles. So far, the only deaths officially attributed to the reactor explosion were workers at the plant.
"A [50-mile zone] would include large population centers in South Florida and would be a high-cost item," said Lochbaum, an engineer who has worked both for the industry and the NRC.
PROGRESS ENERGY, FPL WORKING WITH NRC
Progress Energy spokeswoman Jessica Lambert said her North Carolina-based company is reviewing the task force recommendations and "working closely" with the NRC.
"We have had nothing at any of our plants that raised any major issues. Of course, there are always things we can do to enhance safety," Lambert said.
She indicated that the Crystal River facility, which was damaged during a scheduled replacement of generators in 2009, is due to be back online by 2014.
FPL, which operates two plants at Turkey Point south of Miami and two plants in St. Lucie County, supported the NRC's "methodical" approach to evaluating issues raised by the Japan disaster.
"Florida Power & Light is committed to working with the NRC and the rest of the industry as the rulemaking and stakeholder process goes forward to ensure we are taking the right steps to make all nuclear power plants even safer and stronger," said company spokesman Peter Robbins.
"Since 9/11, [Turkey Point and St. Lucie] plants have made significant improvements to physical structures, emergency preparedness and response capabilities to ensure we are able to mitigate severe abnormal events."
Robbins said, "In the past 90 days, we have re-verified all of our severe accident strategies and equipment to ensure they meet or exceed industry and federal safety requirements. This review reconfirmed that the facilities can be maintained in a safe condition even during a total loss of electric power, flooding, fire and other natural or man-made occurrences."
Since the Fukushima tragedy, Robbins said Turkey Point and St. Lucie "have enhanced severe accident procedures to improve the timeliness of the response to incidents that are beyond what would be expected or beyond industry historical experience.
"After an exhaustive review and inspection, we are pleased that the NRC independently validated Turkey Point and St. Lucie's ability to effectively respond to large emergency events."
IF NRC DELAYS, SCIENTISTS' GROUP URGES MORATORIUM
In a report this week, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists urged the NRC "to begin implementing many of the task force’s recommendations within the next few months and fully implement them within a period of several years, as opposed to the decade it took to implement the safety and security recommendations made after the terrorist attacks in September 2001."
Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist and co-director of UCS' Global Security Program, stated:
“If the NRC balks at implementing new safeguards in a reasonable time frame on the grounds that it doesn’t have enough information about what happened in Japan, then the agency also doesn’t have enough information to relicense operating reactors or license new ones.
“If the NRC commissioners need more time to sort out the lessons of Fukushima, there should be a moratorium," she said.
Both Progress Energy and FPL have plans pending with the NRC for new reactors.
Progress wants to build two nuclear plants in rural Levy County by 2021. FPL has proposed adding two more reactors at Turkey Point.
Meantime, the spent-fuel ponds at Florida's existing nuclear plants are fuller than those at Fukushima's ill-fated facility.
Cara Campbell, chair of the Florida Ecology Party and unstinting critic of both the nuclear-power industry and what she calls "captive regulators" at the NRC, says, "The only thing that is preventing a Fukushima-level disaster in this country is luck -- dumb luck."
"We have to remember that it was not the earthquake but the flooding that caused the problems at Fukushima by inundating the generators and fuel and precluding cooling.
"South Floridians are only lucky Hurricane Andrew didn't come ashore a bit farther north and cause the same sort of disaster at Turkey Point," she said.
Campbell said America's aging nuclear plants "were designed to last about 30 to 40 years, but are routinely allowed to operate 60 years. No doubt, the NRC will license them for longer if the industry screams at losing money by shutting down.
"Do we want to trust the nuclear industry's and the government's assurances the way the people of Japan misplaced their trust?" she asks.
Read NRC Chairman Jaczko's testimony on the task force's 12-point plan HERE.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 559-4719.