NRC’s Path After Fukushima: Still Lined with Pitfalls

August 31, 2011 | 6:00 am
Ed Lyman
Director, Nuclear Power Safety

On Friday, August 19, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) released its initial response to the recommendations of the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force. The NRC did not address the substance of the Task Force recommendations, but only the process for further evaluating them. The NRC’s response, in the form of a “Staff Requirements Memorandum” (SRM), represents an attempt at reconciling the often differing views of NRC Commissioners.

A core dispute hinged on whether the Commission should vote within 90 days to move forward with any of the 12 recommendations provided by the Task Force, or instead require the staff to analyze the issues further and provide additional opportunities for external input. Chairman Jaczko said there was sufficient analysis at this point to move forward on voting on the recommendations within 90 days, noting that this would be only the first step and that there would be further opportunities for Commission guidance, such as rulemaking proceedings.

A majority of the Commissioners, however, believed that a process should be instituted for NRC staff and external “stakeholders” (e.g., the nuclear industry and non-governmental organizations) to have the opportunity to review, analyze, and comment on the recommendations before the Commission votes on whether to adopt them.

As a result, the majority view prevailed, and in the August 19 SRM the Commission ordered the staff to produce a draft charter to guide the review process, which will involve the creation of a senior-level NRC steering committee. The Commission also required the staff to provide two additional papers after 21 days and 45 days, which would contain further proposals on prioritizing the Task Force recommendations. Each of these papers will have to be voted on by the Commission. In addition, the Commission requested the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) to formally review the Task Force recommendations, as well as the staff’s evaluation and prioritization of the recommendations.

Finally, the Commission segregated the first recommendation of the Task Force from the others and put it on a much slower track, requesting a staff paper in 18 months. This recommendation is an overarching one that would require a change in the Commission’s policy on how “severe” accidents would be regulated. This is a slower track than is warranted. Although this recommendation is not itself an urgent matter, it could facilitate implementation of other recommendations that do address urgent safety matters. Deferring action on this recommendation could therefore be counterproductive in the long run. This is also an issue the NRC has been considering for decades. Six months should be adequate time for the staff to develop a proposal based on this recommendation.

UCS, as a stakeholder in the process, certainly appreciates the interest of the NRC in developing a process to receive input from external groups. For instance, we would like the NRC to give due consideration to our own recommendations for strengthening nuclear safety, which contain some elements not addressed adequately by the Task Force.

However, UCS does not wish to see a repeat of the NRC’s sluggish response to the 9/11 attacks. In that case, even though the NRC issued a series of orders known as “compensatory measures” in February 2002 to quickly address security vulnerabilities that became apparent after 9/11, the NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which was representing the nuclear industry, did not even come to agreement on what the orders meant or how they should be implemented until nearly five years later. The guidance was not fully implemented at all plants for five and a half years, and the NRC did not complete its inspections until December 2008—nearly six years after the orders were issued. NEI’s role in this delay is a demonstration as to why “stakeholder” input into regulatory processes is not always beneficial.

UCS believes that many of the Task Force’s recommendations for near-term action, such as addressing gaps in the protection of nuclear plants against natural disasters, can and should be approved quickly with a minimum of additional analysis. The process as outlined in the NRC’s Staff Requirements Memorandum will not necessarily conflict with this goal, but it will all depend on the staff’s plan as approved by the Commission. The Commission should not create a process that allows for open-ended negotiation with NEI on every technical and regulatory issue.

Coming four days after the SRM was issued, the August 23 earthquake in Mineral, Virginia should be a further call to action for NRC. That magnitude 5.8 earthquake caused ground motion that exceeded the “design basis” at the nearby North Anna nuclear plant, even though Dominion, the plant operator, originally had said the plant was designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 5.9-6.2.

This event highlights the knowledge gaps in seismic protection at US nuclear plants and supports the Task Force’s recommendation that the NRC should “order licensees to reevaluate the seismic and flooding hazards at their sites against current NRC requirements and guidance, and if necessary, update the design basis and SSCs [structures, systems, and components] important to safety to protect against the updated hazards.”

The American public deserves swift action—before the next surprise hits—to address safety problems that have been allowed to fester unresolved for too long.