Reactor Reality In Japan And The Real Reasons For The US NRC Spat

In the last two weeks people have noticed an increase in US nuclear industry PR activities. Then last week nuclear industry lobbyists made a coordinated push at members of Congress to get them to join in on the effort to remove Chairman Jaczko from the NRC. The leader of the coup at the NRC is a former consultant to TEPCO who has deep ties in the Japanese nuclear industry. Congressional politicians jumped into the fray with Republicans supporting the ousting of the current Chairman (Jaczko) and Democrats defending his actions and record. A number of investigations and hearings have already been conducted over these ongoing fights at the top of the NRC with more scheduled for this week.

USA Today put out a rather strange editorial full of flawed assumptions and missing key facts, like the well known one that the earthquake was the real cause of the Fukushima disaster and that there was critical reactor damage from that. The implications of the quake causing critical reactor damage go far beyond Japan. It puts all of the US GE BWR reactors into question, now that it is clear that the design failed 3 out of 3 times and key systems failed. 35 of the 104 US nuclear reactors currently operating are GE BWR reactors.

What may have been the catalyst for the latest round of drama at the US nuclear regulators is the upcoming meetings of the NRC this week to make some decisions on changes to be made in light of the Fukushima disaster. These proposed changes would cost nuclear industry reactor operators millions of dollars, possibly more. Much of the current US reactor fleet is very old reactors that owners are attempting to milk the last profits out of. A large new set of safety costs would put that business plan in jeopardy.

So we took a look at what is on the table so far at the NRC in regards to changes at US reactors. This list is a general outline in plain terms of all of the possible actions discussed in the July NRC report plus additional suggestions added in October and December. There are meetings at the NRC this week to decide what they will do with all of these potential ideas. More information on what these may cost the nuclear industry and larger implications below the list.

List of total potential suggestions or new rules:

1. Reevaluate seismic risk and design basis for reactors, update safety to protect against new findings – Tier1
2. Reevaluate flood hazards including tsunami & storms,update safety to protect against new findings. Tier1
3. Seismic & flood walkdowns, have watertight barriers and seals short term while long term changes are determined Tier  1
4. Station blackout (total power loss) updated action plans, training & equipment. Communications equipment, ERDS systems and other equipment to handle a SBO. Would be determined by NRC on a “Performance based criteria” as in the changes would have to be proven to work, not just statements these issues have been handled by operator. Expedited  – Tier 1
5. Reliable hardened vents for  GE Mark I & Mark II containment reactors, evaluation for possible hardened vents at other containment designs. This would be mandatory, no longer voluntary and would have to prove the venting system would work. – Tier  1
6. Review and changes to shared ventilation systems and shared vent stacks on multi-unit sites, shared venting would likely be ended. – Tier  1
7. Emergency preparedness: command & control strategies to implement, qualification and training for people in charge during an emergency. Strengthening and integration of emergency operating procedures, severe accident management guidelines, and extensive damage mitigation guidelines, enough trained staff with authority for multiunit disaster to man all stations, updated training for extended SBO & multiunit disasters. Update or add emergency equipment & facilities to handle multiunit or extended SBO. Communications equipment with power source(s) for on site & off site during a disaster. Fire response procedures. Proper protective equipment for emergency responders – Tier 1
8.  Have 8 hours of back up for loss of all AC power (generators or battery). Training and equipment to supply power for 72 hours to reactor, spent fuel pool cooling, reactor cooling systems and primary containment.
9. Reactor and containment instrumentation should be enhanced to withstand beyond-design-basis accident conditions – Tier 2
10. NRC licensing that requires CAP containment accident pressure credit suspended until post – Fukushima issues are fully understood.
11. Pre-plan and pre-stage offsite equipment & supplies to provide core, reactor, spent fuel pool cooling and “containment integrity”. This includes the ability to deliver equipment to the plant quickly after a major disaster that could include major damage to roads, rail, river etc. transit. The “competing priorities” for responses would also be taken into account.
12. Back up dedicated power (generator, batteries) for the spent fuel pool make up water system and spent fuel pool instruments. This includes reactors no longer operating that have spent fuel on site. Install a quake proof system to spray water into the spent fuel pool that includes an outside connection to hook up a portable pump or pumper fire truck. – Tier 1
13. Update EP to handle multiunit events including personnel, dose assessment equipment, training, equipment and facilities. Provide reasonable protection for current equipment from design basis “external events”. Add equipment as needed to address multiunit events as requirements are updated.
14. Install in control room instruments resistant to natural phenomena to monitor spent fuel pool water level, temperature and radiation level.   -Tier  1
15. Hydrogen control & gas handling systems installed for containment, reactor buildings and “other buildings” for all BWR Mark 1 and Mark II containments. – Tier 1
16. Determine alternative way to transmit ERDS data that does not use hard wired telecom systems that would be out during a disaster. Satellite is suggested.
17. Study the efficacy of real-time radiation monitoring onsite and within the EPZs (including consideration of ac independence and real-time availability on the Internet).
18. Tier 1 & 2 – committee suggests to set dates and move ahead

Since many of these US reactors are the same vintage as the reactors at Fukushima they may not pass new seismic and flooding analysis. Watertight barriers and seals will cost money to install, as will all of these proposals. The total of the likely changes needed to meet the new station black out safety rules could be considerable as they are very wide in scope. Hardened venting systems caused an uproar when they were initially brought up in the 1980’s and were under great resistance from the nuclear industry. Making them mandatory and requiring operators to prove they work could cause considerable cost in addition to the new requirement of Mark II units now needing them. There are already questions about the functionality of current venting systems and the venting systems at Fukushima largely failed.

Shared venting and multiunit reactor sites would also come under more scrutiny and have a new set of requirements. Reactors like Browns Ferry that have 3 reactors housed in 1 building with a shared refueling floor could potentially be unable to meet new rules for safety. Additional battery, generator and power back up systems would all cost considerable money to implement and would require finding new places to put equipment in cramped concrete reactor buildings. Most safety updates include considerable staff training and facilities to do this training in, all costing operators.  Any reactor operating under the containment accident pressure credit would likely be suspended if that change was enacted.

Off site emergency equipment, buildings and the proper equipment to transport it to the reactor site even after a major disaster could prove costly. This would require large inventories of heavy equipment, emergency equipment and even the possibility of helicopters to drop in equipment if required by the NRC. Hydrogen handling systems could prove costly and problematic depending on the design of the reactor. All of these additions, changes to instrumentation, additional equipment and redundancies all make sense from a safety standpoint but are likely seen as unacceptable costs that cut into profits by nuclear power plant operators. Worse yet in the eyes of a for profit reactor operator, if a safety requirement can not be met that power plant may be forced to shut down permanently.

With so much at stake right now it is no surprise that the nuclear industry has unleashed their lobbyists and gone for an attack on the head of the NRC.

Related NRC documents:
July task force report 
Staff assessment of task force report
September additions to task force report 
October additions to task force report
November additions to task force report 
December letter
NRC CAP information 

This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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