First Post-Fukushima Safety Rules Approved by NRC

Five commissioners of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission attend a hearing at the NRC headquarters in the suburbs of Washington on Feb. 9, 2012. The commission approved the construction of new nuclear reactors for the first time in 34 years, licensing two additional reactors at a plant in Georgia. The decision by a 4-1 vote, with the opposition cast by Chairman Gregory Jaczko (C), authorizes Westinghouse Electric Co., a subsidiary of Toshiba Corp., to build and operate the new reactors at Georgia's Vogtle nuclear plant.

Photo: Five commissioners of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission attend a hearing at the NRC headquarters in the suburbs of Washington on Feb. 9, 2012. (Kyodo via AP Images)

March 2, 2012
For more on what happened at Fukushima last March, watch our recent film Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown. And what does it mean for nuclear power in the U.S.? Take a look at another FRONTLINE documentary, Nuclear Aftershocks.

Almost a year after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, and eight months after a post-Fukushima task force issued its recommendations, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] moved to adopt new safety regulations for American nuclear facilities.

The NRC approved three measures based on eight of the task force’s recommendations:

+ Plants must have plans for simultaneous natural disasters and other remarkable events.

+ Plants must improve measuring equipment in spent fuel pools.

+ Plants must improve venting capabilities for plants like the ones at Fukushima — the G.E. Mark I —  in the case of a crisis or power failure.

Last year’s events in Japan — an earthquake, tsunami and prolonged power failure at Fukushima Daiichi –highlighted how several disasters at once can create a dangerous, virtually inoperable situation at nuclear power plants.

“Invariably I think right now the kinds of situations in which you [have] accidents are going to be those in which something has happened that you haven’t necessarily thought about,” NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko told FRONTLINE in January, “or that you thought about but you misunderstood, or you misanalyzed, or you just missed.”

The announcement doesn’t mean any of these changes will happen right away. While three of the five commissioners approved the recommendation, the commissioners disagree on implementation. Jaczko said the rules should be mandatory without additional cost-benefit analysis, while other commissioners are pushing for more research about whether all plants actually need these costly upgrades.

“If we are to remain a predictable, reliable and credible regulator, we must base our decisions — especially those as important as those before us today — on careful, sober, detailed technical analyses,” Commissioner William Magwood wrote. Commissioner George Apostolakis, said that the spent fuel pool regulation may not be necessary in all plants.

Nuclear power companies have been given a year to propose how their plants will comply with these rules, with the eventual goal of being fully compliant by 2016.

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