The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released two dozen recommendations to ensure the safety and security of U.S. nuclear plants. Many of the ideas address problems that have been evident for decades, while others address problems brought to light during the recent accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility.
A Fukushima-like crisis could happen at any one of the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, said David Lochbaum, the director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project.
“Japan’s reactor designs are similar, their protective barriers are similar, and their regulations are, in some cases, even stronger,” said Lochbaum, who worked in the U.S. nuclear industry for 17 years before joining UCS. “If a U.S reactor were faced with a similar challenge, maybe not the exact combo of earthquake and tsunami, but some other natural disaster or human error, it’s unlikely that the story would have a happier ending.
“Fukushima should shake the Nuclear Regulatory Commission out of its complacency,” he added. “There are a number of actions the agency can and should take to make U.S. nuclear plants safer. They can start with our recommendations, many of which we’ve been making for years.”
UCS’s top recommendations call on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to:
- Extend the scope of its regulations to include “severe,” or extreme, low-probability accidents. The agency’s regulations concentrate on so-called “design-basis” accidents—ones that U.S. reactors must be designed to withstand. Severe accidents can happen, but the NRC’s weak requirements and the industry’s voluntary severe accident guidelines are not enough to protect the public, especially when a significant number of plants do not pay attention to those guidelines. This recommendation encompasses the issue of “station blackout,” when a plant loses both off-site and on-site AC power to maintain cooling systems. (Recommendation #1)
- Strengthen emergency planning requirements. The 10-mile-radius emergency planning zone around plants is not large enough to adequately protect all the people living near plants who may be at significant risk. (Recommendation #3)
- Require plant owners to transfer spent fuel from storage pools to less-vulnerable dry casks after five years, when it is cool enough to remove from the pools. (Recommendation #4)
- Force the owners of more than 40 reactors to comply with fire protection regulations, which the agency originally established in 1980 and amended in 2004. (Recommendation #7)
- Apply the same requirements for timely action to plant safety as it does for business-related requests from plant owners. (Recommendation #8)
- Require owners to strengthen protection against potential terrorist attacks. (Recommendation #15)
- Require new reactors to be safer than currently operating reactors, most of which were built at least 30 years ago. (Recommendation #18)
- Make the value of human life it uses in its analyses consistent with that of other government agencies, which are higher. That would force plant owners to add safety features that the NRC now considers too expensive because it underestimates the value of lives that could be saved. (Recommendation #20)
The NRC has planned a two-part response to the Japanese nuclear accident. Late yesterday, a post-Fukushima NRC-appointed task force delivered its 90-day report assessing the safety of the U.S. nuclear fleet to NRC commissioners, and the agency is scheduled to discuss the report publicly on July 19. The 90-day assessment will be followed by a more in-depth analysis.
UCS urges the NRC to require the nuclear industry to take prompt action to strengthen security and safety measures at U.S. reactors.
“The NRC’s response to emerging safety issues has been far too sluggish in the past,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the UCS Global Security Program and a leading expert on nuclear plant design. “Nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. nuclear plant owners still have not completed all NRC-mandated security upgrades because the agency kept granting them extensions. Unless the NRC moves more quickly and decisively to address the safety problems revealed by Fukushima, tens of millions of Americans who live near nuclear plants will continue to be at risk.”