U.S. nuke plants: How much is enough?

In this photo taken last month, workers spray the roof of a radiation-contaminated warehouse in Fukushima, Japan. A massive cleanup has begun in towns contaminated by radiation leaks from the Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
In this photo taken last month, workers spray the roof of a radiation-contaminated warehouse in Fukushima, Japan. A massive cleanup has begun in towns contaminated by radiation leaks from the Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

Nuclear power plants must be capable of responding to major emergencies at more than one plant simultaneously and of maintaining safety system operations during extended power outages.

Those are among the key lessons cited by the nuclear industry and a nuclear industry watchdog group as the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear-plant disaster approaches.

"We know we need to learn every possible lesson from Japan and apply those lessons immediately and in the long term at American nuclear energy facilities," Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said Tuesday.

While their analyses concur in some areas, the NEI and the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit watchdog group, part ways on whether the changes made thus far and those planned for the short and longer terms are adequate.

Making more significant and appropriate improvements than what the industry currently envisions is prudent both for public safety and for the industry's continued economic well-being, the UCS contends.

"No one wants to have an asset turn into a liability in a few hours," David Lochbaum, co-author of a UCS report released Tuesday, said in a phone interview earlier this month. "Even if you're closed-minded about nuclear safety, no one wants to be the next Fukushima. They (U.S. plant owners) know they have to fix some things."

Both the NEI and the UCS held news conferences Tuesday, pushing their different messages about the implications of the Japanese disaster for U.S. plants out ahead of post-Fukushima safety improvement orders expected later this week from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Sunday will mark the one-year anniversary of the catastrophe, in which twin natural disasters - a massive earthquake and a tsunami stronger than what the plants were designed to withstand - led to meltdowns in the cores of three reactors and large radiation releases.

At a morning news conference, NEI said its analysis by an expert panel pinpointed three areas of vulnerability that are being strengthened so that plants will be better prepared to handle extreme events. They must ensure they have power available during extended outages to keep the reactor cores and used fuel pools cool, and keep systems in place to prevent radiation leaks. Even as nuclear plants are producing power and supplying 20 percent of the nation's electricity, they also draw electricity to run equipment. Many U.S. plants have only about four hours of backup power supply, but the industry is planning to increase that with additional on-site fuel supplies and generators.

Rather than planning for specific or likely events, NEI officials said, they have planned for multiple system failures without assigning them to a particular cause, such as a major hurricane, tornado or earthquake.

"We have to be prepared for anything," Pietrangelo said. "We're not smart enough to think of everything that could happen, so our approach is predicated on responding to the symptoms."

Actions at the nation's nuclear power plants thus far include adding more emergency equipment - more than 300 portable generators, pumps, cables, satellite communications gear and other equipment - as well as food, water and other supplies for plant workers who would need to stay on site during an emergency. The purchases were part of the industry's "FLEX" strategy, in which all U.S. plant operators committed to purchasing additional new equipment by March 31.

"We're better off just having more of it around," said Charles Pardee, chairman of the NEI's Fukushima Response Steering Committee. The equipment would be stored in various locations, he said, so that if some is damaged by flooding or other disaster, other equipment would be available. The FLEX strategy also includes more worker training and increasing the number of workers on call for emergencies.

NEI officials estimated the cost of the new equipment and other facets of FLEX at about $1 million to $2 million per plant.

The industry is also setting up about a half-dozen regional centers where collections of emergency equipment would be stored and deployed to various plants in an emergency. Locations of the centers will be based on where air transport of the equipment could be most efficiently staged after a disaster.

Plants also will need to complete new assessments of earthquake and flooding hazards, and to increase protections accordingly, NEI said. Improvements to spent-fuel pool monitoring systems, which were lost during the Fukushima disaster, are also in order, the officials said.

"We're adding an additional layer of protection beyond what we already had," Pietrangelo said.

While the industry sought to assure the public that it is taking the lessons of Fukushima to heart, the UCS was critical both of the industry and of the NRC.

The UCS faulted the industry for making the emergency-equipment purchases without first getting guidance from the NRC about specifications, including ensuring the equipment would be able to withstand earthquakes and floods. It also faulted the NRC for not heeding the recommendations of its own post-Fukushima task force to clarify and strengthen the "patchwork" of regulations plants will be expected to follow to plan for extreme emergencies. That recommendation, included in a task force report released last summer, will not be included in the orders the NRC is expected to release this week, UCS said.

"The NRC has put the cart before the horse by not addressing the task force's primary recommendation before doing anything else," Lochbaum said.

UCS also said the NRC should order plants to expand both the emergency evacuation zones beyond the current 10-mile radius and the distribution of potassium iodide pills to protect the public in the event of a radiation release. Dangerous levels of radiation from the Fukushima disaster were found up to 50 miles from the plant. The NRC has said it will consider expanding the zones as part of a longer-term analysis.

"We think a 20- to 30-mile evacuation zone is more reasonable," said Edwin Lyman, co-author of the UCS report.



Where to go

The Nuclear Energy Institute report, "Making Safe Nuclear Energy Safer: Building on the Nuclear Industry's Commitment to Safety and Preparedness," can be found at: www.nei.org.

The Union of Concerned Scientists report, "U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year After Fukushima," can be found at: www.ucsusa.org.

Both reports are also available at www.theday.com.


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