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Year after Fukushima, US plodding on nuclear plant fixes, watchdog says

The Union of Concerned Scientists lauds the NRC for its initial reaction to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, but warns it is dragging its feet on safety recommendations for US nuclear plants.

By Staff writer / March 6, 2012

Cooling towers for units 1 and 2 are seen through a car window during a tour before a visit by US Secretary of Energy Secretary Steven Chu to the Vogtle nuclear power plant in February, in Waynesboro, Ga.

David Goldman/AP

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Federal regulators are not moving swiftly enough to safeguard the nation's nuclear power fleet from catastrophic accidents like the one at Fukushima Japan, according to a nuclear power industry watchdog that also slams the industry for seeking a quick cheap fix for safety.

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission deserves praise for its swift action to diagnose needed upgrades in US nuclear plants in the days and weeks after the March 11, 2011 meltdowns at Fukushima, says a major new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

But the study hammers the agency for plodding on implementing key recommendations the agency’s own task force delivered last summer – and criticizes the nuclear power industry for leaping to install weaker, less costly safety measures in the absence of a federal mandate.

“The NRC took 10 years to fully implement new security measures in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and now it says it will take at least five years to implement post-Fukushima reforms,” Edwin Lyman, a report co-author and a physicist with UCS’s Global Security Program, said in a statement. “Meanwhile, the industry has bought hundreds of pieces of off-the-shelf emergency equipment that may end up on the junk pile if it doesn’t ultimately meet the requirements that the NRC has yet to develop.”

A year ago, lacking cooling water circulation from pumps, the cores of three of six reactors at Daiichi soon began to melt down. Radiation spewed into the atmosphere, onto adjacent land and into the ocean. Today, long after the reactors achieved “cold shutdown,” the region within 12 miles of the Fukushima site is so contaminated by radioactive isotopes that the roughly 80,000 people who lived there are unable to return to their homes. Hot spots up to 25 miles distant from the plant site are still uninhabitable.

The UCS reports commended the NRC's action to recommend Americans remain 50 miles away from the Daiichi complex, despite little information at the time.

“The initial response of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to the Fukushima tragedy was commendable,” the report authors write. “As the disaster evolved, the agency fielded a large number of inquiries – such as from the media, the American public, and Capitol Hill – in a timely and responsive manner.”

There are now 23 nuclear reactors in the US with designs similar to the Daiichi plant. While most US reactors may not be vulnerable to Daiichi's sequence of earthquake followed by tsunami, “ they are vulnerable to other severe natural disasters,” the report says. “Similarly serious conditions could be created by a terrorist attack.”

Since the disaster in Japan, the NRC has received a list of recommendations – but has so far done little to implement them, indicating a timeline that could take five years or more.

Among problems yet to be addressed, the UCS report says, is lack of disaster-proof instrumentation. Like the Fukushima plant, “most US reactors also lack instrumentation that would allow operators in the control room to monitor key parameters, such as the level and temperature of the water in the spent fuel pools.

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