NRC Document Details the Secret History of Nuclear Industry Stonewalling After 9/11

September 9, 2011
Ed Lyman
Director, Nuclear Power Safety

A document recently made public by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sheds some light on the response of the U.S. nuclear industry to the vulnerabilities in nuclear power plant security and preparedness that became evident following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The vast majority of information on this subject is not available to the public. Although there is a legitimate interest in protecting information that could be useful to terrorists planning attacks, in our view the NRC cast an overly broad net over information related to nuclear power plant security after 9/11. This has inhibited the ability of the public to independently evaluate the claims made by the NRC and the nuclear industry that the security upgrades undertaken after 9/11 were implemented rapidly and were adequate in scope to deal with threat of radiological sabotage.

The recently released document clearly illustrates how the nuclear industry uses secrecy to its advantage to engage in private conduct that was completely at odds with the image it presented to the public.The document, entitled The Evolution of Mitigating Measures for Large Fire and Explosions: A Chronological History From September 11, 2001 Through October 7, 2009 (Part 1, Part 2), provides an extensive, detailed account of the delaying tactics used by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) to prevent the NRC from enforcing requirements that it imposed on the nuclear industry soon after the 9/11 attacks. This is one of the most substantive public documents on post-9/11 activities by the NRC and the industry that we have seen. The document had been marked “Official Use Only—Security Related Information,” but those markings have now been crossed out.

The bottom line revealed in this document is that the NRC issued orders on February 25, 2002 to all nuclear plant licensees to immediately upgrade security in a number of areas by August 31, 2002. Among those areas was Section B.5.b of the order, which required “licensees to adopt mitigation strategies using readily available resources to maintain or restore core cooling, containment and spent fuel pool cooling capabilities to cope with the loss of large areas of the facility due to large fires and explosions from any cause, including beyond design-basis aircraft attacks.”

However, the lack of specificity in this requirement, including the meaning of “readily available,” led to differing positions between the industry and the NRC as to what, if anything, was actually required by B.5.b. As a result of extensive arguments on these points and others, it took nearly five years before the NRC and NEI came to agreement on what actually was required and how those requirements could be met.

These final requirements appear to have been significantly watered down from the NRC’s original proposal. One key issue is that the industry succeeded in avoiding the requirement that the B.5.b measures be incorporated into the site security, emergency, and guard-training plans. As a result, the B.5.b measures were never integrated into the overall plant emergency and security response plans.

The legacy of this has now been revealed by the NRC’s post-Fukushima inspections of B.5.b measures, which found multiple gaps and weaknesses. Without integration of the B.5.b procedures into the other emergency procedures, it is unclear how and when the measures would actually be carried out during an emergency, and if the measures might actually conflict with other important emergency procedures. As a result, many of the measures could be essentially worthless in practice.

After the NRC and NEI reached agreement on the B.5.b requirements, it then took another two years before the licensees complied with the finalized requirements and the NRC completed its inspections. Thus, it took more than six years after the initial compliance date of August 31, 2002 before the requirements of the orders were actually implemented and inspected.

But in April 30, 2009, the staff reported that there were still a range of unresolved issues resulting from the site inspections.

Another interesting fact revealed by this document is that behind the scenes, the NRC apparently worried much more about the risks to spent fuel pools than it was willing to admit publicly. The NRC apparently made mitigation of risks to spent fuel pools more of a priority than mitigation of risks to reactors and containment buildings, and reordered the development of B.5.b measures to address spent fuel pools first. The document cites this change as a “response to heightened public and congressional interest in the potential vulnerability of the SFPs. This heightened interest stemmed from the January 31, 2003, paper by Robert Alvarez, Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States, of which I was a co-author.

Of particular note in the document is the partial resolution of a mystery that has long plagued us here at UCS: the failure of the NRC to follow through on its decision to impose a new regulation on pressurized-water reactors with ice condenser containments and on boiling-water reactors with Mark III containments to ensure there would be backup power to hydrogen igniter systems in the event of a station blackout.

In 2000, Sandia National Laboratories found that the probability of containment failure from hydrogen explosions at these types of plants following a station blackout (such as what happened at Fukushima) was very high—up to nearly 100 percent for certain plants. The reason is that these plants have relatively small and weak containment systems that could be ruptured by hydrogen explosions, and therefore they require hydrogen igniter systems to burn off hydrogen during a severe accident before it builds up to an explosive concentration. However, these systems require AC power to operate—power that would not be available in a station blackout.

In 2003, the NRC conducted a cost-benefit analysis of this issue and determined that the cost of requiring these plants to add additional backup AC power was less than the benefit. This means that the NRC could proceed with imposing a new regulation that would compel these plants to install additional backup AC power for the igniters.

But this regulation was never implemented. According to the NRC, the reason was that the licensees all promised to install such backup power as a “voluntary” commitment. Even so, it was highly irregular for the NRC to reverse its decision to impose a new regulation, and it was never clear why this happened. Substituting voluntary commitments not enforceable by the NRC for regulatory requirements generally leads to inadequate outcomes—a fact that has become apparent post-Fukushima, as NRC reviews of the nuclear industry’s voluntary procedures for coping with severe accidents have revealed major problems.

Now we know from the recently released history that behind the scenes the NRC was engaged in a major conflict with NEI over this issue. It turns out that because this was a security as well as a safety issue, the NRC apparently decided in 2006 to “promptly require” BWR Mark III and PWR ice condenser reactors to obtain additional power supplies for the igniters, and directed the staff to issue orders to that effect. However, NEI did not believe such requirements were appropriate, and responded by requesting a private meeting between the NRC Commissioners and the Chief Nuclear Officers of the affected plants. While the record does not show whether this meeting ever occurred, one can surmise that this concerted effort by the industry to derail the requirements ultimately prevailed.

The legacy of NEI’s stonewalling is now apparent in the report of the NRC Fukushima Task Force. Many issues identified as safety weaknesses at nuclear plants today stem from the compromises that the NRC made during the development of B.5.b requirements.

Thus, the fact that nuclear plants are neither as safe nor as secure as they need to be today is a direct result of NEI’s strategy of fighting the B.5.b requirements tooth and nail.

About the author

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Edwin Lyman is an internationally recognized expert on nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and nuclear power safety and security. He is a member of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, and has testified numerous times before Congress and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.