Wednesday, July 20, 2011 | 2 a.m.
After a massive earthquake and tsunami badly damaged a Japanese nuclear power plant in March, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko ordered a task force to study the situation, looking for any lessons that could be applied in the United States.
The task force issued its report last week, calling for changes to the rules for the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants to address problems seen in Japan. It recommends boosting the standards at nuclear power plants to protect against natural disasters. The task force also called for requiring better backup systems to provide power and water to keep plants running in case of an emergency, and it said some existing voluntary safety standards and measures should be mandated.
Jaczko on Monday called for the agency to take “strong steps” to boost safety, and he said he wanted to see the commission give clear direction on its intentions regarding regulations within 90 days and then complete a badly needed overhaul of the agency’s regulations within five years. “We have enough information at this time to take the necessary interim steps,” Jaczko said Monday at the National Press Club. Although that seems clear given the situation in Japan and the task force’s report, Jaczko will run into opposition in his push to increase security. As Bloomberg News reported, at a meeting Tuesday, Commissioner William Ostendorff said, “I personally do not believe that our existing regulatory framework is broken.”
The nuclear power industry has urged caution. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobbying arm, has argued that there needs to be more study of the disaster in Japan. Industry officials have urged the NRC to rely on its rule-making process, which can take years to complete. Some of the industry’s supporters in Congress have also suggested that the NRC is moving too fast or in the wrong direction.
Both Jaczko and nuclear power industry officials say the nation’s commercial reactors are safe, but the question is whether U.S. nuclear power plants can withstand such a disaster. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the NRC has been doing a study of seismic hazards to nuclear power plants since 2005 and, although not yet finished, it raises concerns about two dozen plants.
Still, the industry downplayed such concerns, saying the likelihood of such an event is remote. Alexander Marion, an executive with the Nuclear Energy Institute, said he’s afraid the NRC may regulate against earthquakes that “would only happen every 100,000 years.” But this is the wrong response. There are reactors in the United States with a design similar to the one that has spewed radiation in Japan. And no one would have thought such a disaster could happen there.
The nuclear industry can’t protect against everything, but the Japanese disaster shows there is room to improve in the United States, particularly as many reactors are in or reaching their fourth decade of service.The NRC’s task force hasn’t suggested anything outlandish or far-fetched, but instead it has provided a thoughtful take on how the nation’s nuclear reactors can improve. The NRC should take the recommendations seriously, move quickly to update its rules and further ensure the public’s safety.