The NRC set up a task force to analyze what happened at Fukushima and assess how to make U.S. reactors safer. In July 2011, the task force offered a dozen recommendations to help safeguard U.S. nuclear plants in the event of a Fukushima-scale accident.
Unfortunately, the NRC has since rejected or significantly weakened many of those recommendations and has yet to fully implement the reforms it did adopt, according to a new Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report. UCS also found that the agency abdicated its responsibility as the nation’s nuclear watchdog by allowing the industry to routinely rely on voluntary guidelines, which are, by their very nature, unenforceable.
Letting the Industry Make the Rules
The NRC and the nuclear industry’s main response to the Fukushima accident is what they call the “diverse and flexible coping capability” program or FLEX for short, which will provide extra backup emergency equipment to cool reactors and spent fuel pools during a prolonged power loss.
The FLEX program is a prime example of the industry jumping out ahead of the NRC. In this case, the industry purchased backup emergency equipment—pumps, compressors, generators, batteries and the like—before the NRC had the chance to develop guidelines for the program. To cut costs, the industry bought commercially available equipment that may not weather a severe accident and the industry-initiated FLEX guidelines hinge on ambiguously worded, hard-to-enforce directives that, for example, mandate “reasonable protection” of safety equipment. Regardless, the NRC largely approved the industry’s plan instead of developing its own standards.
When three of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors overheated, plant workers scrambled to lower reactor core pressure by depressurizing the containment building so they could inject cooling water. They couldn’t open the containment vents from the control room, however, because there was no electric power. Without enough cooling water, the reactors melted down.
To avoid the possibility of this happening at the 30 currently operating U.S. reactors that share the same containment design as those at Fukushima, the NRC staff recommended that the agency not only require plant owners to install reliable, “hardened” vents that could be easily opened during an electricity outage, but also compel owners to add filters to avoid releasing radioactive material into the surrounding community. Four countries with the same type of GE reactors—Finland, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland—require filtered vents and Japan is planning to do so.
The nuclear industry, however, argued that the FLEX program obviated the need for filtered vents, despite the fact that filters would be more dependable than relying on plant workers to perform complex tasks under very trying circumstances. After years of analysis, the NRC staff reversed its original recommendation, asserting that that neither vent filters nor the industry’s proposed alternatives were justified. Last August, NRC commissioners voted to do nothing.