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NRC task force proposes new safety guidelines for nukes

nuclear-reactor-babcock-wilcox_1.jpgFour months after the Fukushima crisis garnered its first headlines in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami, nuclear authorities are still trying to define an appropriate response that will reassure politicians and the public without creating an unnecessary burden on industry.

This week a task force appointed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its first analysis of the safety requirements in place at 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, and not surprisingly the task force found the current regulatory framework wanting (Washington Post). The NRC’s Japan Task Force concluded that a cascade of events like that which led to multiple explosions and meltdowns at Fukushima is “unlikely” to occur in the United States, but then again it was an unlikely scenario in Japan as well. In the end, it is exactly that kind of low-probability high-risk event that that the NRC is charged with addressing in its regulations.

In its analysis, the task force found a complex framework of redundant safeguards that has been modified again and again in order to respond to various problems and concerns over the decades. The predictable result is a “patchwork of regulatory requirements and other safety initiatives” that might or might not be applied in a consistent manner at any given plant, according to the report (available in pdf form here). By looking at the system as a system, the task force concluded that a more balanced approach “would provide an enhanced regulatory framework that is logical, systematic, coherent, and better understood.”

The task force is proposing a range of improvements targeting everything from power outages, flooding and earthquakes to issues of emergency preparedness and spent fuel storage pools. In particular, the report recommends updating power plant risk assessments every 10 years, bolstering requirements for back-up power and enhancing requirements for monitoring and maintaining pools of spent nuclear fuel during an emergency. The commission must now decide how, whether and when to implement the recommendations. The normal regulatory process could take time, but in some instances the NRC could also issue rules that would take effect immediately.

One issue the task force did not address in its recommendations is whether to fundamentally overhaul the way companies handle spent fuel once it comes out of the reactors – a question that has implications from Fukushima to Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

As it stands, operators have packed their pools full of spent fuel (far more than the pools were originally designed for) because it’s cheaper to let the waste cool down there than to put it into expensive – but highly robust – dry casks. The tradeoff is that more fuel translates into more heat and less wiggle room in the event that pumps go down and the pools dry up, as occurred at Fukushima. But this issue remains on the agenda of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which was established to identify a path forward after the president shut down the nation’s permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain last year (for background see our coverage here).

The commissioners are operating under the assumption that spent nuclear fuel could remain on site at nuclear reactors for several decades or more, which is to say that these questions aren’t going away. The commission issued a series of draft reports in June and plans to issue its final report in January. The administration hopes that the commission’s report will lead to a legislative proposal that can garner bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, but we have more than a quarter century of history suggesting it won’t be easy.

In the meantime, the administration’s decision to shut down the plant remains in indefinite limbo at the NRC, where an internal board ruled last year that the administration’s decision to shut down Yucca Mountain violated federal law. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko – who supports the decision to close Yucca Mountain – doesn’t have the votes to override that ruling, and so it appears that he has simply declined to hold said vote. Earlier this month the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit challenging the administration’s closure of Yucca Mountain, saying the question should rightly be decided by the NRC. The court also fired a warning at Jaczko by declaring the agency cannot “insulate itself from judicial review by refusing to act.”

Stay tuned. Indefinitely.


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