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.
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.
Outside pressure for regulatory reform is mounting, too. Environmental groups have filed legal challenges to continued reactor licensing in the absence of evidence the NRC is taking its job seriously.
“What we’ve learned in the wake of Japan’s nuclear disaster – and what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s experts concluded – is that current regulations are fundamentally inadequate. They simply do not provide the level of safety required by laws including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Atomic Energy Act,” said Phillip Musegaas, of Riverkeeper, which is fighting a 20-year license extension at the Indian Point plant north of New York City.
The NRC task force’s modest recommendations are aimed at upgrading earthquake and flooding protection, ensuring adequate emergency power, and preventing fires or explosions in both reactors and spent fuel pools. If anything, the proposals raise more questions about the need for even tougher regulations. But at least they’re a start.
What’s really got the industry – and most of the five NRC commissioners – upset is the task force’s first recommendation to turn a “patchwork” of requirements and voluntary initiatives for maintaining safety during severe accidents into “a logical, systematic, and coherent regulatory framework for adequate protection...”
“Recommendation One” doesn’t seem earth-shattering. But the industry is worried it would extend the agency’s regulatory mandate into areas that are currently voluntary. The NRC staff on Monday proposed proceeding on some of the recommendations “without delay” while it prepares another report for Oct. 3. But a divided commission is allowing 18 months of “study” before requiring a report on that first and most controversial recommendation. A tactic to slow-walk it to death?
The five commissioners could instead opt to turn specific recommendations into regulations now, clearing the way for a comprehensive overhaul later on. Acting decisively makes it less likely that the debate over post-Fukushima reforms will drag on for years, as did the debate over security-related nuclear regulations following 9/11. The net effect of that lengthy process was a set of steadily watered-down regulations. In fact, post-9/11 regulations were debated for almost a decade before being implemented, with the result being that senior NRC technical staff now question their effectiveness.
Earthquakes and hurricanes – natural disasters – are stark reminders of how perilously close we could be to man-made nuclear disaster. A respected NRC is the sine qua non of a successful US nuclear program. If we can’t rely on the present commissioners to take the necessary steps in a timely manner, it may fall to Congress – hard-pressed to agree on anything – to reconsider whether a commission is still the appropriate overseer of an industry fraught with aging plants and dated regulations.
Stephanie Cooke is editor of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly for the Energy Intelligence Group and author of “In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age.”