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Despite recent alerts, nuclear regulators give an 'all-safe'

At a hearing Thursday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said things are fine. But it also acknowledged it is double-checking key items to verify preparedness in the wake of Fukushima.

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Members of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at a meeting at the NRC's headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, Mar. 21. The NRC gave an 'all-safe' to the US despite recent alerts.

Larry Downing/Reuters

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In its first interim report on US nuclear reactor safety since the Fukushima disaster, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported Thursday that no major safety problems were found – but acknowledged it is double-checking key items to verify preparedness.

"As we stand today, the task force has not identified any issue we think would undermine our confidence in the continued safety and emergency planning of nuclear plants in this country," Charles Miller, an NRC staff member, told the commission in a hearing Thursday on the 30-day briefing. A full and final 90-day report is due in July.

But nuclear watchdog groups are howling because that regulatory finding comes just two days after a nuclear-industry safety organization, conducting its own safety review, admitted deficiencies at several nuclear power plants – in systems intended to cool reactors in a major emergency.

Then, Wednesday, the NRC issued its own "bulletin" demanding that reactor licensees immediately report, under penalty of perjury, whether they were meeting obligations in that area – the ability to deal with fires and explosions and keep reactors cool even during a station blackout.

Independent nuclear safety experts were left shaking their heads over the seeming contradictions, unable to reconcile the NRC's all-safe finding with the alerts by industry – and the NRC's own leap to attention following the industry's report.

"There's a lot of confusion right now at the NRC," says Edwin Lyman, a nuclear physicist and reactor safety expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington. "What they're grappling with is really a pretty big gap between regulations they have really good assurance for – those intended to ensure that the plants are operating safely as they are designed for – and those they say can help handle something like Fukushima that's really beyond the pale."

NRC: Rules added after 9/11 keep US reactors safe

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Since the Fukushima disaster began to unfold, the NRC has repeatedly assured the American public that its 104 nuclear reactors were safer than those in Japan – in large part because the United States had implemented additional rules after the 9/11 terror attacks, known as B.5.b rules, which are intended to provide extra insurance in a disaster.

Yet implementation of those rules is apparently far weaker than previously understood, undermining the NRC's claims that the US approach is safer than Japan's, Dr. Lyman and others say.

Key failures were identified on Tuesday by Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry lobby group, at a Washington conference.

He said the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), an industry technical group based in Atlanta, had independently identified deficiencies at several nuclear power plants, in terms of their ability to handle issues like major floods or earthquakes – disasters that go beyond a plant's designed-for contingencies.

Specifically, INPO identified US nuclear plants that had failed to meet the NRC's B.5.b requirements. That set of rules "for example requires equipment to be in a certain place and requires [nuclear operators] to have specific procedures and training," said Mr. Fertel, according to Platt's, an energy news service.

The B.5.b rules refer to a section of an NRC order, issued in February 2002, describing strategies that nuclear plant licensees were required to implement after 9/11. The intent was to "maintain or restore core cooling, containment, and spent fuel pool cooling" if a plant lost large areas of the plant due to explosion or fire, Lyman wrote in a recent issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist.

During Thursday’s hearing, NRC staffers briefly acknowledged that they were not certain if B.5.b rules are being implemented well.

"Yesterday, we issued a bulletin to the nuclear power industry," Martin Virgilio, NRC deputy executive director for reactor and preparedness programs, told the five-member commission.

"That bulletin requests information, specifically with respect to what the licensees have done to implement strategies to respond to large fires and explosions,” Mr. Virgilio said. “We've inspected those, over time, but we wanted to go out and check again to make sure we understood clearly what licensees had done."

Plants have until June 10 to confirm, first, that their equipment for dealing with large fires and explosions is in place and available, and second, that strategies can be carried out with current staffing. The plants have another month, until July 11, to detail:

• How essential resources are maintained, tested, and controlled to ensure they are ready when needed in a crisis.

• How strategies are reevaluated when plant conditions or configurations change.

• How arrangements are reached and maintained with local emergency response organizations.

Should the NRC rely on the B.5.b disaster plans?

Depending on the B.5.b plans to provide the crucial margin of safety during extreme events may be a questionable strategy, in light of findings from the NRC’s own inspectors.

For instance, at Fukushima, special emergency steam-powered pumps called reactor core isolation cooling (RCIC) pumps were supposed to be able to provide cooling water to two of the reactors – until the batteries ran down after eight hours, notes Lyman. After that, fuel rods began overheating and began to melt. (During that eight-hour window, the diesel-powered backup electricity was supposed to kick in, but the tsunami had washed away the diesel tanks.)

But in recent weeks, NRC employees told staff members for Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California that thanks to B.5.b, US reactors with similar designs would not overheat in such circumstances, because plant operators would be able to manually operate the RCIC pumps, avoiding a core meltdown with an hour to spare.

That notion of operating the RCIC pumps manually – and other B.5.b. strategies like it – "have really not been reviewed to ensure that they will work to mitigate severe accidents," according to e-mails exchanged between NRC staffers, obtained by UCS under the Freedom of Information Act.

During Thursday’s hearing, NRC officials said they believed that such problems had been resolved – but said they had sent out the bulletin to confirm it.

"If there were inoperable equipment or deficient procedures, it's my understanding that those issues have been – at this point – resolved," Virgilio told the commission. "That said, we're still going out and asking for confirmation via the bulletin to ensure that is in fact the case."

For its part, the nuclear power industry says it remains confident that existing plants will keep getting relicensed – and new plants will be built. Of the nation's 104 reactors, 66 have already had their licenses extended 20 years, while another 18 are currently under NRC review. Despite Fukushima, NEI expects four to eight new reactors to begin operating between 2016 and 2020.

“We believe that American nuclear plants are well prepared and could withstand significant natural forces here in this country," Fertel of NEI said in a statement. "We’ll be even better prepared as we address the lessons learned from Japan."

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