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NRC Assures Congress of Progress on Post-Fukushima Safety Enhancements

The following news article originally appeared in NEI’s Nuclear Energy Overview.

The NRC commissioners told congressional leaders this week they are confident, despite acknowledging the schedule as “very aggressive,” that the highest-priority post-Fukushima safety enhancements will be completed by the agency’s 2016 deadline.

The commissioners’ comments also revealed a renewed atmosphere of collegiality established in the two months since Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane assumed her post.

“I am pleased to see that debates and the free flow of information seem healthy and respectful again,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Combined, your actions are critical to ensure the safe operation of the nuclear power plants across this country.”

It was the committee’s seventh NRC oversight hearing since the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima nuclear energy facility in Japan.

This March, the NRC issued three orders and a detailed request for information to address what it considers the highest-priority, or Tier 1, recommendations of the agency’s task force. The first order requires strategies to maintain cooling and containment integrity in a severe natural event that exceeds design parameters. The second requires reliable, readily accessible hardened containment vents for boiling water reactors with Mark I and II containments. The third requires additional instrumentation to monitor the water level in used fuel storage pools. The NRC requested detailed information on seismic and flooding hazards and emergency preparedness for extreme events that could affect multiple reactors at a site.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee, expressed concern about the timetable for completing the Tier 1 actions.

“While on the one hand I am encouraged that the NRC has begun moving forward, I also have concerns that the commission is allowing some nuclear plants to delay implementing safety improvements beyond the recommended five-year period,” Boxer said. “I intend to continue this committee’s oversight to make certain that these safety upgrades are completed without delay.”

Macfarlane said she expects the deadlines will be met. The industry already has begun significant work, she said, including the acquisition of additional portable safety equipment and inspections to assess facilities’ readiness to cope with seismic and flooding hazards.

The other commissioners also generally seemed confident that the industry will complete the Tier 1 actions without compromising safe operations. However, Commissioner George Apostolakis acknowledged that the Tier 1 actions require a significant amount of work. “The schedule is very aggressive, especially [for] the seismic … and the flooding analyses. We have to appreciate that,” he said.

Some committee members expressed concern about the NRC’s moving forward with the lower-priority Tier 2 and 3 recommendations before the higher-priority actions have been completed.

“We need to make America’s nuclear reactors as safe as we can … while growing this important energy source,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) “It is incumbent upon the commission to ensure that those who must implement those recommendations are able to do so without impeding the growth of much-needed nuclear power.”

He asked what steps the commission is taking to ensure that Tier 1 actions are “thoroughly and successfully implemented” before the NRC imposes further requirements. “Can you assure me that other extraneous guidance or other rules that are not vital to protecting public health and safety won’t be forced upon the nuclear power plants until they have fully completed the Tier 1 recommendations?” he asked.

Macfarlane said the NRC is “prioritizing the issues we feel are most important.” As staff resources presently devoted to Tier 1 actions become available, she said, the agency will address recommendations in Tiers 2 and 3.

Several committee members also emphasized the importance of nuclear energy in America’s energy portfolio for environmental and economic reasons.

The electricity from America’s 104 reactors “has helped curb our nation’s reliance on dirty fossil fuels and has helped reduce our air pollution that damages health and causes global warming,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) However, he said, “We have seen from the crisis at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi facility the damage that nuclear power can cause if not properly regulated.” Carper, who chairs the subcommittee on nuclear safety, added that he felt reassured when the NRC concluded after last year’s accident in Japan that a similar event is unlikely here.

Inhofe said it is important to enhance safety at U.S. reactors. “At the same time,” he added, “the NRC has the vital responsibility to determine the cumulative effects that its regulations actually have on safety. It is important that regulations provide significant, tangible and necessary safety benefits that warrant the costs—costs that are ultimately borne by consumers.”

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