TOPICS > Science

NRC Chief: U.S. Nuclear Plants Safe Despite Age, Needed Upgrades

July 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Japanese coast and triggered a nuclear crisis raised major questions surrounding the safety of U.S. nuclear reactors. Gwen Ifill discusses new safety regulations issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with its head, Gregory Jaczko.

GWEN IFILL: We look at some of the major questions surrounding safety concerns now with the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Let’s start by talking about this report that you — came out today. These are recommendations that your task force is making that you want to follow or that the industry needs to follow?

GREGORY JACZKO, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency: Well, these are recommendations to the full commission.

And it’s going to be up to the commission to decide whether or not we implement any of them. And that’s something I think we can do in the next 90 days. These are really commonsense recommendations.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s walk through some of them, and especially the ones arising — the questions arising from the Japanese incident, which is the seismic and flooding issues. How vulnerable are U.S. plants or any U.S. plants to that sort of thing, assuming there would be an earthquake or some sort of flooding event?

GREGORY JACZKO: Well, what the task force found and what we have known as an agency is that there’s no immediate concern or risk with plants. We have a very robust system of requirements and regulations in place.

What these are, really, are ways to better reduce or more — reduce the likelihood of a very low-probability/high-consequence event and better deal with it if it were to happen.

GWEN IFILL: But a lack of backup power, that seems like something that could happen.

GREGORY JACZKO: That is certainly something that could happen.

But for it to happen for a very long period of time, like we saw in Japan, takes a combination of a large number of very unlikely events. But, again, I think this task force gave us some good things to think about as we go forward to make it less likely that something like that could happen.

GWEN IFILL: Any number of news organizations, from the Associated Press, to The Wall Street Journal, to ProPublica, have done a lot of reporting ever since that accident in Japan about what might happen here.

Some — among the things they have exposed is the risk of just plain flat-out old aging of these plants that were built to last 40 years and are still online.

GREGORY JACZKO: Well, we monitor all of the plants in this country, whether they’re 10 years old, 20 years old, or 45 years old. And each of the plants has to meet our rigorous safety requirements.

And we have people at each facility that we call resident inspectors. And they’re there every day to monitor the plants and make sure that they’re meeting our strict standards.

GWEN IFILL: ProPublica writes that some fire standards have — fire safety standards have been waived.

GREGORY JACZKO: Fire safety has been a challenge for the agency for many years. But, again, what we have seen is that plants can basically deal with a fire at any facility.

There’s always the possibility of something beyond what we prepare for and plan for. And in those cases, we want to make sure that the plants have extra systems and the ability to ultimately keep the reactor core cool. So I think there are always ways we can get better. But we have right now a very robust system of protection in place.

GWEN IFILL: If there are 82 plants more than 25 years old at this point, are there any plans to take any of them offline?

GREGORY JACZKO: Not right now.

GWEN IFILL: Why not?

GREGORY JACZKO: Again, we monitor them very carefully. And if they don’t meet our safety requirements, we would certainly take action to shut a plant down and do whatever we need to do.

But, right now, we believe that those plants are operating safely. And our standards are very, very tough. And there are going to be times when plants won’t quite meet them, but that doesn’t mean that there’s any imminent risk to public health and safety.

GWEN IFILL: What about the storage of spent nuclear fuel, spent nuclear fuel rods? That was at the heart of what part of the problem was in Japan. And ours seems to be stored even more densely than theirs.

GREGORY JACZKO: Well, right now, the system that we use to store spent fuel is based on a combination of putting the fuel in these pools and then putting it in dry cask storage.

And the task force that we convened looked at this issue very carefully. And what they found was that coming out of Japan, the most important thing was to make sure that we knew for the spent fuel that is in pools, that we know how much water is in the pools and that we have the ability to keep water in there, because, if you can do that, then the fuel will be fine.

GWEN IFILL: Was it your word that the current system of safety regulations are a patchwork?

GREGORY JACZKO: No. That’s something that came out of the task force’s recommendations. And…

GWEN IFILL: What does that mean?

GREGORY JACZKO: Well, I think it means that, over the years…

GWEN IFILL: It’s not very reassuring, “patchwork.”

GREGORY JACZKO: Well, I think what it means is that over the years, as new issues have come up, we have adopted new requirements to address those issues. And, of course, after time with anything that you do, you take a step back and you look at it.

And what you see are different approaches in different areas to dealing with issues that the task force I think now found all kind of fit a similar pattern. So, as I said today at the meeting, quilts are made up of patchwork. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the quilt won’t keep you warm.

And so our requirements ultimately ensure protection. And what this task force told us was that, going forward, and there may be ways to make it a little bit more transparent and clear. And that’s what I think the patchwork was really about.

GWEN IFILL: At the root of a lot of this seems to be two major conflicting points of view. One is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is supposed to be the government’s watchdog, is a little too cozy with the industry and allows them to set their own standards.

The other argument from the industry’s point of view is that you’re saying, hey, we want to come up with these new ideas in 90 days. We can’t do anything that fast. You’re being too tough on us.

What’s the middle ground here?

GREGORY JACZKO: Well, I think, if you think about this whole process is building a house, what I’m suggesting in the next 90 days we need to be able to do is to get the blueprint done.

The task force report that we have in front of us right now really is the blueprint. And I think we can — they did their work in 90 days. I think we as a commission can take a look at these recommendations in 90 days. Now, that doesn’t mean that’s the end of the story. There is going to be a lot of work that would need to go in then if the commission approves some of these recommendations to work out the details, to figure out the implementation schedule.

All of that could take years. So I think, in the end, we’re not necessarily saying different things. It may just be the words that we’re choosing.

GWEN IFILL: Which is more likely, that the — what happened after — as a result of Fukushima — I’m trying not to use the term fallout obviously — but that what happened in the wake of Fukushima will freeze further nuclear development, or that your report will cause it not to freeze, and it will be — and you will be building — continuing to build without the proper safety requirements?

GREGORY JACZKO: Well, the commission right now is looking at a number of applications for new reactors in this country. And we’re headed towards a final decision on those things by the end of the year.

So, I think, if we — if we act on these recommendations promptly, and we do that within the next 90 days, we will have a clear understanding of what kinds of changes, if any, these new reactors would need to make to address the issues. And so I think, if we do this right, we will be able to have certainty about the safety of the existing fleet of reactors, as well as the potential reactors that may be licensed by the commission.

GWEN IFILL: So you still expect more reactors to be licensed?

GREGORY JACZKO: At this point, we haven’t seen any decrease in the interest for new reactor licensing in this country.

GWEN IFILL: Gregory Jaczko, thank you so much.

GREGORY JACZKO: Good to be here, Gwen.