Quantcast
Energy

Fukushima Should Have Served as Wake-Up Call for U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 50-foot tsunami triggered meltdowns at three of six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. It was the one of the worst accidents in the nuclear industry's 60-year history, contaminating thousands of square miles, displacing more than 150,000 people and costing Japanese taxpayers nearly $100 billion.

Photo credit: International Atomic Energy Agency

The disaster was a wake-up call for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). After all, nearly a third of the 104 U.S. reactors operating at the time were General Electric Mark I or Mark II reactors, the same as those in Fukushima. The accident raised an obvious question: How vulnerable are those reactors—and the rest of the U.S. fleet for that matter—to comparable natural disasters?

The NRC set up a task force to analyze what happened at Fukushima and assess how to make U.S. reactors safer. In July 2011, the task force offered a dozen recommendations to help safeguard U.S. nuclear plants in the event of a Fukushima-scale accident.

Unfortunately, the NRC has since rejected or significantly weakened many of those recommendations and has yet to fully implement the reforms it did adopt, according to a new Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report. UCS also found that the agency abdicated its responsibility as the nation's nuclear watchdog by allowing the industry to routinely rely on voluntary guidelines, which are, by their very nature, unenforceable.

"Although the NRC and the nuclear industry have devoted considerable resources to address the post-Fukushima task force recommendations, they haven't done all they should to protect the public from a similar disaster," said report author Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist and co-author of the 2014 book, Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster. "If the NRC is serious about protecting the public and plant workers, it should reconsider a number of recommendations it scrapped under pressure from the industry and its supporters in Congress."

Half-Baked Reforms

The post-Fukushima task force's top priority was overhauling what it called a "patchwork" of NRC regulations and industry voluntary guidelines for "beyond-design-basis" events—incidents that plants were not designed to withstand. The task force argued that both regulators and plant owners would benefit from a coherent set of standards that would guard against severe events like Fukushima and provide a framework for implementing its other recommendations. After several years of deliberation, however, the NRC ultimately passed on making any fundamental changes, maintaining that its regulatory framework doesn't need fixing.

Lyman said this was a critical mistake. "By rejecting the task force's top recommendation," he said, "the NRC regulatory regime will remain full of holes, leaving the public at risk from potential accident scenarios that regulators may overlook."

The NRC then relied heavily on its vaguely worded "backfit" rule to reject many of the other recommended post-Fukushima safety upgrades. The rule limits the agency's ability to require new safety rules if a proposed upgrade's cost is deemed to exceed its benefits. Many important safety recommendations failed to pass this test, despite the fact that they would have made plants safer.

"The post-Fukushima, lessons-learned process provided the NRC a golden opportunity to reform its inconsistent approach to regulating the industry," Lyman said. "Unfortunately, it didn't take advantage of it."

Letting the Industry Make the Rules

The NRC and the nuclear industry's main response to the Fukushima accident is what they call the "diverse and flexible coping capability" program or FLEX for short, which will provide extra backup emergency equipment to cool reactors and spent fuel pools during a prolonged power loss.

Read page 1

The FLEX program is a prime example of the industry jumping out ahead of the NRC. In this case, the industry purchased backup emergency equipment—pumps, compressors, generators, batteries and the like—before the NRC had the chance to develop guidelines for the program. To cut costs, the industry bought commercially available equipment that may not weather a severe accident and the industry-initiated FLEX guidelines hinge on ambiguously worded, hard-to-enforce directives that, for example, mandate "reasonable protection" of safety equipment. Regardless, the NRC largely approved the industry's plan instead of developing its own standards.

Likewise, the NRC decided to continue to allow plant owners to develop their own voluntary plans for managing a core-melt accident, rejecting a task force recommendation to require them to do so. If plans are voluntary, the NRC has no authority to review them or issue citations when they are deficient.

"Once again, the NRC is ignoring a key lesson of the Fukushima accident: Emergency plans are not worth the paper they are printed on unless they are rigorously developed, maintained, periodically tested and subject to NRC inspection and enforcement," said Lyman. "When it comes to many critical safety measures, the NRC is allowing the industry to regulate itself."

Saying No to Filtered Vents

When three of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors overheated, plant workers scrambled to lower reactor core pressure by depressurizing the containment building so they could inject cooling water. They couldn't open the containment vents from the control room, however, because there was no electric power. Without enough cooling water, the reactors melted down.

To avoid the possibility of this happening at the 30 currently operating U.S. reactors that share the same containment design as those at Fukushima, the NRC staff recommended that the agency not only require plant owners to install reliable, "hardened" vents that could be easily opened during an electricity outage, but also compel owners to add filters to avoid releasing radioactive material into the surrounding community. Four countries with the same type of GE reactors—Finland, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland—require filtered vents and Japan is planning to do so.

The nuclear industry, however, argued that the FLEX program obviated the need for filtered vents, despite the fact that filters would be more dependable than relying on plant workers to perform complex tasks under very trying circumstances. After years of analysis, the NRC staff reversed its original recommendation, asserting that that neither vent filters nor the industry's proposed alternatives were justified. Last August, NRC commissioners voted to do nothing.

"As a result," the UCS report states, "in the event of a severe accident, the NRC is leaving plant operators with a horrible dilemma: ... open the vents and deliberately release radioactivity into the environment or ... allow the reactor containment to overpressurize and potentially rupture, resulting in an even greater release of radiation."

Either way, we're talking about contaminating a vast area with high levels of radioactivity and increasing the cancer risk for nearby residents.

NRC Should Reconsider Safety Recommendations

The UCS report pulls back the curtain on a post-Fukushima reform process that has largely played out behind the scenes. Hopefully its findings will raise some eyebrows—if not sound the alarm—on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration, because public safety depends on federal oversight. Elected officials should insist that the NRC reconsider the safety measures it rejected, especially replacing its hodge-podge of vaguely written rules and voluntary guidelines with a rational regulatory approach and establishing a transparent process that allows the public to assess the effectiveness of its reforms.

"The NRC and the nuclear industry have taken steps to address some of the safety vulnerabilities revealed by the Fukushima disaster," said Lyman. "But so far, the agency has failed to fully learn the lessons of Fukushima. It needs to go back to the drawing board and reconsider critical safety recommendations that it dismissed without good justification. And let me stress: This is not an academic exercise. The health and safety of more than 100 million Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant hang in the balance."

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

7 Top NRC Experts Break Ranks to Warn of Critical Danger at Aging Nuke Plants

5 Years After Fukushima, ‘No End in Sight’ to Ecological Fallout

Radioactive Leak at Indian Point Nuclear Plant Shows ‘We Are Flirting With Catastrophe’

5 Years Later Fukushima Still Spilling Toxic Nuclear Waste Into Sea, Top Execs Face Criminal Charges

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Animals
Mom and baby West Indian manatees in Three Sisters Springs, Florida. James R.D. Scott / Getty Images

Florida Manatee: 10% of Population Could Be Wiped Out This Year

2018 has not been a good year for Florida's iconic manatees. A total of 540 sea cows have died in the last eight months, surpassing last year's total of 538 deaths, according to figures posted Monday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The figure will likely climb higher before the year's end amid the state's ongoing toxic algae crisis. The red tide in the state's southwest is the known or suspected cause of death for 97 manatees as of Aug. 12, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission recently reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
SOPA Images / Getty Images

Walmart Joins Ranks of Retailers Pulling Toxic Paint Strippers From Shelves – When Will EPA Follow Suit?

By Sarah Vogel

Monday, Walmart announced that it will stop selling paint strippers containing methylene chloride or N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP) in stores by February 2019—making it the first general merchandise retailer to take such action. Walmart's announcement follows the strong leadership demonstrated by Lowes, Home Depot and Sherwin Williams, all of which have committed not to sell methylene chloride- and NMP-based paint stripping products by the end of the year. Importantly, Walmart's action goes beyond its U.S. stores, including those in Mexico, Canada and Central America, as well as their online store.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Seal #108, left, and a small pup named "Premie" swim up to the edge of their pool for their 3 p.m. feeding at the Marine Mammals of Maine rehabilitation center on Aug. 14. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

New England Seal Die-Off Could be Linked to Chemical Pollution

Researchers think a mysterious die-off of seals along the Maine coast could be linked to chemical pollution, the Portland Press Herald reported Sunday.

More than 400 dead or stranded seals have washed up on the Maine coast so far this year, more than in any of the past seven years, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) statistics.

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy
Looking towards Livadia harbour on the Greek island of Tilos. Getty Images

Greek Island to Be First in Mediterranean to Power Itself With Only Wind and Solar

The Greek island of Tilos is set to be the first in the Mediterranean to power itself entirely with wind and solar power, The Associated Press reported Sunday.

The final tests of a new system that will allow the island to power itself with batteries recharged by a solar park and 800-kilowatt wind turbine are taking place this summer, and the system is expected to go live later this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Oceans
Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Please Stop Flushing Your Contact Lenses

Contact lenses may appear harmlessly soft and small, but a big chunk of American users are improperly disposing their used lenses and adding to the planet's microplastic problem, Arizona State University researchers found.

In a survey of 409 wearers, about 1 in 5 responded that they flushed their used lenses down the toilet or sink instead of throwing them in the trash, according to a new study presented at the American Chemical Society's National Meeting and Exposition.

Keep reading... Show less
Health

Cell Phones in Schools? France Says No, San Francisco Educators Urge Caution

By Olga Naidenko

As the school year begins, the movement to exercise caution in students' use of cell phones and other wireless devices is gaining international momentum.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
Breakthrough

'We Are Climbing Rapidly Out of Humankind's Safe Zone': New Report Warns Dire Climate Warnings Not Dire Enough

By Jon Queally

Offering a stark warning to the world, a new report out Monday argues that the reticence of the world's scientific community—trapped in otherwise healthy habits of caution and due diligence—to downplay the potentially irreversible and cataclysmic impacts of climate change is itself a threat that should no longer be tolerated if humanity is to be motivated to make the rapid and far-reaching transition away from fossil fuels and other emissions-generating industries.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Pxhere

Trump Power Plant Plan Will Significantly Increase CO2 Pollution

The Trump administration is expected on Tuesday to propose a major rollback of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama's signature climate policy.

The replacement will relax rules for coal-fired plants and will very likely increase air pollution and planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!