The United States may follow France in recommending that nuclear power plants build new equipment dedicated to containing a serious accident, in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said on 11 January that it considered as “a reasonable starting point” a plan put forward by the Washington DC-based Nuclear Energy Institute, a body representing the nuclear industry, to reinforce safety at US power plants.
The plan would involve placing portable pumps, generators, batteries and other emergency equipment at various locations around power plants — a mobile system that could be brought into play in the event of a serious accident providing extra resources to try to prevent a degeneration into a meltdown. The NRC is now reviewing what measures are needed to learn the lessons of Fukushima, and is expected to announce new rules before the 11 March anniversary of the accident.
This new focus on also having equipment dedicated to containing an accident is similar to that of sweeping French rules announced earlier this month, requiring all reactors to build a set of safety systems of last resort. But the French plan goes further, requiring the systems to be contained in bunkers that will be hardened to withstand more extreme earthquakes, floods and other threats than the plants themselves are designed to cope with.
“Simply buying some additional emergency equipment will do little to enhance safety unless it is protected against more severe events than plants are currently able to withstand and it is rugged and highly reliable. Otherwise, a severe event may render the new equipment as unusable as the existing equipment, says Ed Lyman, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC. “The French plan appears to address this. However, in the US the standards for the reliability of the new equipment have yet to be determined, and industry is unlikely to support requirements that the equipment meets the highest standards for protection against extreme events.”