The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is jeopardizing reform by failing to heed its post-Fukushima task force’s top recommendation to clarify its “patchwork” of regulations for “beyond-design-basis” events that reactors are not intended to withstand, according to a report released March 6 by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report, U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year After Fukushima, also found that the nuclear industry is moving ahead with its own post-Fukushima initiative before the NRC has had time to determine whether it will adequately protect the public.
“The NRC has put the cart before the horse by not addressing its task force’s primary recommendation before doing anything else,” said Dave Lochbaum, director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Program. “By putting it off, the agency has potentially undermined the effectiveness of the other recommendations, which all hinge on this critical issue.”
For example, one of the other task force recommendations called on the NRC to require plant owners to implement measures enabling workers to better cope with a loss of off-site and on-site emergency backup electric power—a “station blackout.” The precedent comes from the NRC’s post-9/11 requirement that plant owners install portable diesel-fueled pumps and generators to protect their facilities from a prolonged station blackout caused by an aircraft attack. However, because the NRC defines an aircraft attack as a beyond-design-basis event, it did not require this equipment to meet high quality and reliability standards or be hardened to withstand other potential events, such as natural disasters. Indeed, post-Fukushima inspections have confirmed that at many plants some of the equipment would not survive earthquakes or floods.
Meanwhile, the nuclear industry is already making changes on the ground in response to Fukushima, the report found. Under an initiative the industry calls the Diverse and Flexible Coping Capability program, or FLEX, plant owners are beginning to supplement and relocate the post-9/11 equipment, ostensibly to better respond to severe natural disasters. Plant owners are dispersing it in numerous locations on and near reactor sites, but are not planning to harden it against natural disasters. The industry is banking on there being enough equipment available so that at least some of it would be usable in the event of a catastrophe.
The NRC has proposed that plant owners provide “reasonable protection” for emergency equipment, but it has not yet defined how this requirement would be met. In the meantime, the industry has already purchased more than 300 pieces of FLEX equipment without waiting for NRC guidelines, which will make it difficult for the agency to later institute standards that could force the industry to replace the equipment.
“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,” said Edwin Lyman, co-author of the report and a physicist with UCS’s Global Security Program. “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.”
Last July, UCS released its own recommendations for strengthening reactor safeguards. The NRC staff initially selected three of the recommendations—enlarging emergency evacuation zones, expanding potassium iodide distribution, and accelerating the transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry casks—for further evaluation. A few months later, however, the NRC decided that its current approach in each of these areas is adequate and delayed any further consideration.
“We seriously question whether current NRC policy in these areas is ‘adequate,’ and we hope the agency will take a hard look at these issues,” said Lyman. “For instance, the NRC justifies maintaining its current one-size-fits-all, 10-mile-radius emergency evacuation zone by arguing that evacuations could always be expanded in the event of a serious accident. But the agency has yet to explain how that would happen and has put this issue on a slow track.”
Likewise, the NRC “is dragging its feet on addressing the dangers of densely packed spent fuel pools by requiring accelerated transfer of spent fuel to safer dry storage casks,” Lochbaum added. “That’s cold comfort for the 116 million Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.”
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The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
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Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
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<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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