The inadequacy of Pilgrim’s safety systems as they stand today is a result of the current flawed regulatory framework of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Even after the wake-up call that the NRC should have gotten after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the NRC could not overcome its internal problems to make nuclear facilities adequately safe enough from a severe accident. The problem with the way that the NRC functions as a regulatory body can best be understood by the results of its own Near Term Task Force (NTTF), formed after the Fukushima accident to determine whether U.S. nuclear facilities were sufficiently prepared to handle similar circumstances—i.e. accidents resulting from natural phenomena causing a loss of off-site electricity, also known as a prolonged station blackout.
Even though the possibility of a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami happening near a U.S. plant is unlikely, it would only take a station blackout to thrust the U.S. into the same disastrous predicament as Japan. Would our backup generators work once the electric-powered pumps failed, or would they be damaged or disabled by a natural disaster such as a hurricane, flood, earthquake, etc.? How prepared would the containment vessel around the reactor be to contain radiation in the event of a meltdown? All of these questions and more were to be answered by the NRC’s NTTF.
At the time of the formation of the NTTF, the NRC had already required nuclear facilities to have several ways of dealing with a station blackout situation. Facilities needed to have two emergency diesel generators, backup battery powered cooling systems, and outside AC power sources (Lochbaum et al 167). However, the emergency diesel generators could be damaged and made inoperable by flooding; the backup battery-powered cooling systems only last for about four hours; and the outside AC power sources could be made unavailable because of damage from the same natural disaster that caused the station blackout. The NTTF thought that this was inadequate, and made a total of twelve recommendations for the NRC.
First and foremost, the NTTF recommended “…establishing a logical, systematic, and coherent regulatory framework…” for the NRC to prevent accidents (Lochbaum et al 289). The NTTF thought that the NRC’s way of preventing accidents up to that point had been based on a “patchwork of regulatory requirements” developed “piece-by-piece over the decades” (Lochbaum et al 170). The fact that the NRC’s approach to regulating is subjective is undisputed. According to NRC Commissioner William Ostendorff, “reasonable assurance [of public safety] does not require objective criteria, and it is also determined on a case-by-case basis dependent on the specific circumstances” (Lochbaum et al 187). This approach creates some regulations that are mandatory, but others that are voluntary, leaving gaps and holes in the regulatory framework, and an absence of a uniform standard.
However, most of the NRC commissioners denied the NTTF’s assertion that something was wrong with the current system. Commissioner William Magwood stated in a Senate hearing on March 15, 2012, “I think that our infrastructure, our regulatory approach, our practices at plants, our equipment, our configuration, our design bases would prevent another Fukushima from occurring under similar circumstances at a U.S. plant. I just don’t think it would happen” (Lochbaum et al 182). Commissioner Ostendorff said, “I personally do not believe that our existing regulatory framework is broken,” adding that the NRC first must consult with “our stakeholders” (the nuclear industry) before making any policy changes such as recommendation 1 (Lochbaum et al 173).
However, these “stakeholders” didn’t need consulting, as they had already started to develop their own response to Fukushima, called the “diverse and flexible mitigation capacity plan,” or FLEX, without consulting the NRC. FLEX is a voluntary initiative that calls for housing extra portable equipment such as backup pumps, generators, batteries, and chargers on-site and off-site nuclear facilities (Lochbaum et al 173). This was modeled after the NRC’s B.5.b section within the Order for Interim Safeguards and Security Compensatory Measures of February 2002, created after the September 11 attacks as an extra safety measure to give plants emergency backup equipment to deal with a disaster resulting from a plane crash (Lochbaum et al 173). However, post-Fukushima NRC inspections found that the B.5.b equipment was likely to fail in a severe event (Lochbaum et al 235). This should not have come as a surprise given that the NRC had not required that the safety equipment be “safety grade” or “hardened,” meaning that “the B.5.b equipment could legitimately have come straight off the shelf from Home Depot,” since no quality standards or safety tests were required (Lochbaum et al 173).
The NRC would end up using the B.5.b measures as a model for one of three recommendations that were actually approved. This recommendation required plants to develop “mitigation strategies” to deal with a station blackout. To execute this recommendation, the NRC ended up adopting the FLEX template that the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI, which consisted of such parties as Exelon and Entergy) had already proposed (Lochbaum et al 236). Facilities across the U.S. had already bought more than three hundred pieces of equipment before the NRC had even ordered any changes (Lochbaum et al 238). Since the nuclear industry had already spent millions on equipment for their own plans, they knew it would be difficult for the NRC to object to FLEX (Lochbaum et al 239).
The same results as the B.5.b measures were happening with the NTFF’s recommendation, because again, the NRC wasn’t requiring “hardened” equipment. Another problem was that the NRC declared that these regulations would be “performance based,” meaning that the NRC would specify the desired outcome and leave it up to the nuclear facility owners to achieve it, just like the B.5.b measures. While this certainly left room for flexibility in solving problems, it lacked a testable and enforceable standard.
Not only was the mitigation strategy order performance based, but it was also vague and unspecific. It stated that owners must provide “reasonable protection” of the emergency equipment from beyond-design-basis events (Lochbaum et al 238). But how reasonable is reasonable?
Apparently the industry’s FLEX strategies were reasonable enough for the NRC, even though critics such as the Union of Concerned Scientists found them to be inadequate. For example, FLEX only focuses on preventing core damage, so it does not account for the possibility that equipment might have to be set up in a hot and radioactive environment after the core has started to melt (Lochbaum et al 239). This is contrary to a statement made by Chuck Casto (head of the NRC task force sent to Fukushima) to his colleagues, that “Mark I containment is the worst one of all the containments we have…. in a station blackout you are going to lose containment. There’s no doubt about that” (Lochbaum et al 87-88).
Another problem would be managing a loss of water in a spent fuel pool. FLEX, according to the industry, has a plan for emergency cooling in this situation. However, the cooling system is manual and attention would have to be torn between dealing with that and a simultaneous core meltdown (Lochbaum et al 256).
In adopting the industry’s FLEX program, the NRC has neglected many parts of the NTTF’s recommendations, such as requiring that backup generators be stored well above flood level, or that specific time frames for maintaining cooling be implemented into safety plans (Lyman).
Additional NRC safety proposals, such as adding “multiple and diverse instruments to measure [plant] parameters” or adding “dedicated bunkers with independent power supplies and cooling systems,” have been thrown out because of the NRC’s confidence in FLEX, according to an NRC testimony to Congress (Lochbaum et al 255).
FLEX is considered to be good enough, because of the NRC’s attitude that “it can’t happen here.” However, the public needs to understand that FLEX is not “reasonable protection” from an accident caused by a station blackout, and that we are not adequately safer after the Fukushima accident. That is why Cape Cod Bay Watch is working hard to keep Entergy accountable, by challenging its current FLEX program which, for example, requires setting up mooring buoys and an outhaul system along the shoreline of Cape Cod Bay to pump sea water into the reactor in case of a meltdown. Read more about the flaws of this plan →
For more information about U.S. FLEX plans, visit the website for the Union of Concerned Scientists →
Read Pilgrim’s FLEX plan →
Lochbaum, David, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster. The New Press, 2014. Print.
Lyman, Edwin. “Two Years After Fukushima: Status of NRC Safety Reforms.” allthingnuclear.org. Union of Concerned Scientists. 8 March 2013. Web. 25 July 2014.
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