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How the Government Is Pinching Pennies and Cutting Corners When it Comes to Nuclear Safety

It appears the lessons from Fukushima have not been learned.

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To date, the NRC's Lessons Learned Task Force has only proposed adopting one of Japan's post-Fukushima safeguards -- the installation of HCVs with radiation filters -- but even this decision has come under fire. In January 2013, a phalanx of 21 pro-nuclear Republicans who serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee signed a letter calling on the NRC to quash the radiation-filtering recommendation as too burdensome for the beleaguered nuclear industry. The industry fears the cost of installing external radiation filters could lead to the shutdown of many older US plants. (Three of the Congressional letter-signers come from states where a total of five Fukushima-style GE reactors were recently found to be at increased risk of damage due to earthquakes.)

While Japan has called for swift action to address these three critical protective measures, the NRC has indicated that the deadline for action on its single safety improvement, the installation of HCVs (currently set to be accomplished by December 31, 2016), may be pushed back to December 31, 2017.

In an Order to Modify Licenses alert sent to US reactor operators on March 12, 2012, the NRC expressed concern that the Fukushima disaster had shown how "extreme natural phenomena could challenge prevention, mitigation and emergency preparedness." In response, the NRC ordered the operators of 20 US reactors to "implement requirements for reliable hardened containment vents at their facilities." (The NRC actually ordered such improvements in 1989 but it turned out the vents needed electrical power and air pressure to operate and, in the event of an accident, electricity and air pressure could be lost. )

In its NUREG-1150 report on Severe Accident Risks, the NRC concluded that "the Mark I and Mark II containments do not have the same margins of safety that other containments have during accidents." This report went on to state: "The NRC and nuclear industry have recognized the potential need to vent Mark I and Mark II containment designs to cope with severe accident conditions since at least the early 1980s." 

So why didn't the NRC act sooner? It was a cost-benefit decision. The Commission ruled that the expense of the making the upgrades was not warranted due to the "low probability" of a nuclear accident. In a report dated November 26, 2012, NRC staff noted that "legislators and regulators in other countries did impose requirements in the aftermath of the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl" clearly choosing "the defense-in-depth argument with less or no consideration of cost/benefit analyses." Still, the NRC was not swayed.

In their November 26, 2012 report, the NRC staff offered four options to the commissioners:

  1. Continue with planned addition of "reliable hardened vents," 
  2. Upgrade safety with "severe accident capable vents," 
  3. Design and install "engineered filtered containment venting" to block the release of radioactive clouds following an accident and, 
  4. Consider additional strategies to handle "severe accident confinement."

The staff concluded both options 2 and 3 were "cost-justified in light of the substantial increase in the overall protection of the public health and safety" and recommended option 3. Neither of the two improvements will come cheap. The cost for installing Severe Accident Capable Venting Systems was estimated at $3,027,000 per reactor while the estimated unit cost to install Engineered Filtered Venting Systems totaled $16,127,000.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and plant operators countered that expensive filters are "unnecessary" and that merely "hardening" the venting systems should suffice. The Electric Power Research Institute's (EPRI) argument against installing radiation filters was particularly wishful. "The best way to avoid radiological release and potential land contamination," EPRI argued, was to "prevent an accident from occurring." The NRC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards initially sided with industry's call for "performance-based standards" but NRC staff argued this approach would delay action by several years, thereby violating the commission's commitment to address the filtering issue "without delay."

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