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Are U.S. Nuclear Plants Ready for a Fukushima-Like Meltdown?

May 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
When Chairman Gregory Jaczko resigned from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week, reports suggested it was linked to battles within the commission over safety requirements. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Miles O'Brien reports on how government regulators in the U.S. set the safety bar for nuclear plants.
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JEFFREY BROWN: In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, how should government regulators here set the safety bar for nuclear power plants in the U.S.?

This week, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced his resignation, and news reports suggest that battles within the commission over safety requirements may partially account for his departure.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has been looking into these bigger questions well before the latest news.

His report was produced in partnership with ProPublica.

MAN: We’re staying on AOP-1 for reactor scrams and AOP-2 for turbine trips.

And the immediate actions for AOP-1 reactor scram are complete.

MILES O’BRIEN: This is a test, only a test. If it were a real nuclear accident in the making, you would know about it by now.

MAN: Also, right now, we have sustained a loss of RPS, plus Bravo.

MILES O’BRIEN: We’re in the simulator at the River Bend nuclear power plant near St. Francisville, Louisiana, where these technicians are practicing how to respond to an accident.

Since the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, this has been part of the routine at all U.S. nuclear power plants, one of many changes in the way the industry does business in the wake of that accident.

But now, in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, U.S. regulators and the industry are grappling with how best to respond, or not, to what happened in Japan.

Gregory Jaczko is the outgoing chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

GREGORY JACZKO, chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency: Nuclear power plants generally work well when a lot of things aren’t changing. So there is, I think, an inertia against change and against improvement. And I think it’s something we have to be vigilant about and continue to push, as the regulator, to make sure that that change happens.

MILES O’BRIEN: An inertia against improvement, that doesn’t sound like a very safe approach.

GREGORY JACZKO: Well, I think you look at the industry and where it is today vs. where it was 10, 15, 20 years ago, there have been a lot of enhancements to safety. Performance is much better than it used to be.

MILES O’BRIEN: I joined Jaczko as he toured the River Bend plant. Managers here showed us the layers of safety measures that stand between controlled nuclear fission and disaster.

In industry parlance, it is called defense in depth. These portable generators at River Bend are the last line in that defense if a failure, a disaster, or terrorism knocks out the three larger backup generators designed to keep the cooling water flowing and the nuclear fuel from melting.

But industry watchdogs warn there are holes in the defense at U.S. nuclear power plants.

DAVE LOCHBAUM, Union of Concerned Scientists: The biggest concern I have had with the NRC over the years I have been monitoring them is lack of consistency.

MILES O’BRIEN: Dave Lochbaum is a nuclear engineer who spent 17 years working for the industry before publicly blowing the whistle on safety concerns and joining the Union of Concerned Scientists, which just released an eye-opening report on the NRC and nuclear plant safety in the U.S. in 2011.

It documents 15 near-misses, many occurring because reactor owners either tolerated known safety problems or took inadequate measures to correct them; problems with safety-related equipment that increased the risk of damage to the nuclear core; recognized, but unresolved problems that often cause significant safety-related events at nuclear power plants or increase their severity.

And it says NRC inspectors all too often focus just on a specific problem, not its underlying cause.

DAVE LOCHBAUM: I think the challenge the NRC has is, when something happens, it’s easy to convince people they need to spend money, prevent the next one. But when something hasn’t happened yet and it’s just a postulated event or a hypothetical disaster, it’s more difficult to get people to pony up millions of dollars to fix the hypothetical problem.

MILES O’BRIEN: The case in point may be the Indian Point nuclear plant that sits on the Hudson River, 35 miles from Times Square in Manhattan. The 40-year licenses to operate the reactors here are up for renewal.

Indian Point’s owner, Entergy, is seeking a 20-year license renewal. But where to set the safety bar, especially after Fukushima, is at the heart of a raging debate over whether Indian Point should get a new lease on life.

Eric Schneiderman is the attorney general of the state of New York.

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN, New York attorney general: It is clear to us that, at this point in time, they have not met their burden of proof of showing that they deserve to be relicensed.

MILES O’BRIEN: After Three Mile Island , a federal court ruling forced utilities to expand their list of what-if scenarios and consider the cost of protecting against more unlikely events than required by the NRC. They are called severe accident mitigation alternative analyses, or SAMAs.

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: All that requires the utility to do is to examine, do a cost-benefit analysis of safety measures that are not prohibitively expensive, but could provide substantial additional safety for the plant.

MILES O’BRIEN: Indian Point’s SAMA analysis revealed 20 cost- beneficial safety upgrades Entergy could perform. They include adding a diesel generator to charge batteries, a flood alarm, better flood protection, additional devices to monitor for leaks, and a valve to reduce the risk of hydrogen explosions.

In all, the upgrades carry a $77 million price tag. But, surprisingly, implementation of SAMA upgrades like these wasn’t a prerequisite for an NRC license renewal.

Why not?

GREGORY JACZKO: We have a two-track approach to our review.

The first part is really the safety decision, and that’s about the license. The second part is about the federal government needing to do a review to look at environmental consequences. So, it’s as part of that — that second review that we look at these severe accident issues, and they really are about looking at environmental impacts.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, that means you don’t have to factor in a Fukushima scenario as you consider the possibility of relicensing a plant?

GREGORY JACZKO: We — again, we do it as part of the environmental review, but not specifically in the safety context.

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: The NRC has taken a very narrow view of what’s required for relicensing. It defies common sense. There is no one out there who thinks that that’s the way a regulatory agency should behave.

MILES O’BRIEN: So Schneiderman took Entergy to court, and his unprecedented legal challenge paid off. In a landmark decision, the independent tribunal responsible for relicensing ruled that the company must now consider, and likely implement, the SAMA upgrades in order to get a new license.

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: We’re not talking about wild, expensive stuff. These are only things that pass through this cost-benefit analysis. These are cheap remedies that yield a substantial safety, big bang for the buck, or little bang for the buck, I guess.

But it’s something that they should absolutely be required to do. And now, in the context of Indian Point, because it will be a condition of their relicensing, they will be required to going forward. That should be our policy in every nuclear power plant in the country.

MILES O’BRIEN: Should be a given?

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Yes, absolutely.

MILES O’BRIEN: Schneiderman hopes his victory will change the way the NRC does business, but as Gregory Jaczko points out, the agency is resistant to change.

In fact, the announcement of his resignation comes amid a battle with other commissioners over whether to embrace a menu of a dozen changes proposed by a task force that studied the Fukushima meltdowns.

Among the recommendations? A requirement that plants have vents designed to prevent buildup of explosive gas, that operators plan for outages at more than one reactor simultaneously, and, most important, the installation of extra generators like this one at River Bend that would allow a nuclear plant to endure a long blackout of at least eight hours without losing the ability to keep cooling water flowing over the hot nuclear fuel rods.

GREGORY JACZKO: That effort is going to take probably at least two years, and it will require focus and diligence on the part of the agency, as well as on the part of the industry, to make sure that we get that rule change done, and then we implement everything that it requires in a prompt and timely way.

MILES O’BRIEN: Two years, that’s lightspeed for you guys.

GREGORY JACZKO: I think two years would be an aggressive schedule, but it’s one that I think we can achieve.

MILES O’BRIEN: But other NRC commissioners and the nuclear industry are fighting the Fukushima task force safety upgrades, saying they need more time to implement them.

The meltdowns in Japan may have forced the industry to think about the unthinkable, but it is still unclear what actions may follow, and if the NRC will take the lead or be forced into taking action.