Congress, the NRC, and Nuclear Power Safety

December 13, 2011 | 10:41 pm
Lisbeth Gronlund
Former contributor

The now-public accusations and recriminations between members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and its chair are a sideshow that obscures the real—and longstanding—problem with the NRC. Simply put, it has not been doing its job when it comes to making sure U.S. nuclear power is as safe as it should—and can—be. This problem existed long before Mr. Jaczko was NRC chair, and Congress should not be sidetracked into thinking he is the source of the problem and his removal will be the solution.

Congress will be holding two hearings this week with the five NRC commissioners, one before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday and the other before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday. These hearings should focus on the safety issues facing the U.S. reactor fleet rather than on NRC’s internal squabbling.

For example, Congress should make sure the NRC moves expeditiously to reduce the vulnerabilities of reactors to catastrophic natural events, and to require reactor owners to improve their plans and equipment to cope with station blackouts, where no AC power is available for plant cooling. The NRC shouldn’t allow five years to pass before post-Fukushima reforms are enacted.

Congress should also be asking questions about the four dozen reactors that are not in compliance with fire safety regulations. Because a fire would threaten back-up safety systems, the risk of fire comprises fifty percent of the risk of a reactor meltdown—as much as all other potential causes combined.

It should also be pushing the NRC to require reactor owners to take common sense steps to improve the safety of spent fuel storage. Today spent fuel is stored in overfilled pools at reactor sites, which increases both the risk and potential consequences of an accident. Reactor owners should instead transfer spent fuel to safer dry casks after a period of five years, when they are cool enough to do so.

Members of Congress should also use these hearings to push for strengthened emergency planning requirements. Current evacuation and mitigation plans cover only the area within ten miles of the reactor—which in many cases may not adequate. For example, in Japan, high contamination levels were recorded well beyond 10 miles from the Fukushima plant. The NRC should require reactor owners to develop emergency plans for a larger area, based on a scientific assessment of the populations at risk for each reactor site.