NRC must implement nuclear regulations now, not 10 years after Fukushima
Americans narrowly avoided nuclear disasters during hurricane Irene and the 5.8 earthquake that hit the East Coast. Six months after Fukushima, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must implement new regulations, rather than debate reforms for the next decade, as it did post-9/11.
Americans were disconcertingly lucky to have avoided a nuclear disaster during hurricane Irene and the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that preceded it. Both events pointed out deficiencies at nuclear power plants up and down the East Coast and critical regulatory gaps.Skip to next paragraph
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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) identified potential for increased earthquake risk in central and eastern states several years ago. Yet a letter requiring operators to assess their reactors for seismic vulnerability – in the works since 2005 – still has not been sent and is not expected to go out until the end of this year, after which they would have one or two years to comply.
The risks of such a laid back approach have been brought into clearer focus after the Aug. 23 earthquake shut down the two reactors at the North Anna plant in central Virginia, which lost all external power for hours. The tremor also shifted by inches 25 huge concrete containers – each weighing 115 tons – holding spent nuclear fuel.
Plant operator Dominion Virginia Power has now acknowledged that ground motion exceeded what the reactors were designed to withstand, in some cases by 10 to 20 percent. Operators at 10 East Coast locations reported an “unusual event” that day, with a total of 18 reactors affected by the quake.
During hurricane Irene, emergency sirens malfunctioned at three nuclear plants: Oyster Creek (in New Jersey), Peach Bottom (in Pennsylvania), and Calvert Cliffs (in Maryland). Indian Point in New York was slapped with a permit violation when heavy rains led to an overflowing discharge canal. At Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs a large piece of aluminum siding slammed into a transformer, forcing a plant shutdown. We got off lightly, all things considered.
After the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe on March 11, the NRC told America’s nuclear operators to do a series of checks on their reactors – most of which are nearing the end of their original 40-year licensed operating lives. It followed that up by sending inspectors to evaluate the operators’ work. What the NRC inspectors found is that many aging nuclear plants are ill-prepared to cope with a serious accident – that is, one involving a total loss of power over an extended period.
As Fukushima so dramatically illustrated, a nuclear power plant without power is no longer able to keep its cooling systems running. When the reactor core overheats, as it did in three of Japan’s units, the plant is quickly transformed into a fire-breathing, potentially explosive, radioactive monster.
An NRC staff task force asked to review the agency’s regulations recommended a number of common-sense fixes, mainly to reduce the chances of an accident involving a major release of radioactivity. This drew the ire of a nuclear industry more accustomed to dictating the rules then to the NRC acting independently.