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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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Noting that filtering technologies already exist and "have been demonstrated through significant testing and application at nuclear power plants worldwide," the staff identified evaluation of filter vents as a "Tier 1 issue" -- i.e., an action "to be initiated without unnecessary delay."

The NRC's Tier 1 actions include: "evaluations" of flood and earthquake hazards; improved station blackout (SBO) regulations; strategies for addressing "beyond-design-basis events" (i.e., unplanned-for disasters); hardened vents for Mark I and Mark II containments; and installing instruments to monitor the stability of spent fuel storage pools.

The NRC's Tier 2 concerns (i.e. those requiring "further technical assessment and alignment") include: spent-fuel pool safety and evaluating the danger from hurricanes, floods and other extreme weather events.

The Tier 3 recommendations ("actions that require further staff study to support a regulatory action") include: "enhancements" to protect reactors from fires and floods triggered by earthquakes; requiring HCVs for other at-risk reactor designs; developing strategies to prevent or "mitigate" buildups of explosive hydrogen inside containment structures; improvements in handling a "prolonged station blackout and multiunit events," and providing staff training on how to deal with "severe accidents."

Citizens groups and nuclear watchdogs recently have urged the NRC to implement additional post-Fukushima safety measures but the commission seems determined to move slowly on a small number of focused changes.

On January 31, 2013, the Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS) and other organizations submitted a citizens' petition demanding that the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) address a number of additional changes. These include:

  1. Expanding the 10-mile "emergency planning zone" to include a 25-mile "plume emergency zone," a 50-mile Emergency Response Zone, and a 100-mile "ingestion pathway zone."
  2. Update emergency response and evacuation plans to incorporate the increased dangers posed by climate change ‹ i.e., droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding.
  3. Base emergency planning on real-life experiences (i.e., TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima) and not simply on computer simulations. 
  4. Acknowledge the National Academy of Science finding that "there is no safe dose of radiation" and increase protection levels for people threatened by long-term and sustained exposures. (Because women and children are most at risk, federal radiation guidelines should no longer be based on the anticipated risk to "the average man." The preferred guidelines should, instead, be based on the risks posed to a young girl.) 
  5. Emergency supplies of potassium iodine tablets should be made widely available to protect populations against the risk of thyroid cancer, disease and mental retardation that can result from breathing and ingesting fallout byproducts.
  6. Establish "best practices" to determine whether "shelter-in-place" or "evacuation" poses the best response to a nuclear power plant accident.

It is now up to the NRC's five commissioners to decide whether to order operators to install safety improvements that could cost tens of millions of dollars-per-reactor. The Commissioners could insist or swift implementation or they could simply ask for "further study."

Unfortunately, as Beyond Nuclear notes, "the controversial and expensive 'fix' for the unreliable, aging and failing GE designs has clearly politicized the Commissioner's' upcoming vote."

Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green).

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