The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Near-Term Task Force on the Fukushima nuclear disaster presented its recommendations for improving safety at US reactors to the NRC Commissioners on July 19. While the report’s recommendations are not perfect, they are a start for improving safety in the event of low probability, high consequence events, such as earthquakes and flooding. Of course, the proof will be in the pudding: how these recommendations are carried out will determine whether real safety improvements are made.
But the question still remains whether they will be carried out. The nuclear industry made it clear that they don’t want any changes, claiming that it is too early to draw conclusions from the Fukushima disaster. This argument is gobbledygook: there are strikingly clear lessons from Fukushima that the NRC must act on now. For example, Fukushima made it crystal clear that plans must to be in place to cool a reactor in the event of the loss of offsite and onsite power. And how can it be rash to “reevaluate and upgrade as necessary” earthquake and flooding protection at reactors?
As a testament to NRC’s coziness to its “regulated” industry – recently well-documented by the Associated Press – the day after the Task Force presentation, Commissioners Svinicki and Magwood voted to punt these recommendations to NRC staff for further review – essentially burying them in bureaucracy. It is alarming that at least two of the NRC Commissioners are resisting change to the status quo. These recommendations are not the end-all, be-all of what needs to be done to improve safety at operating US reactors. Important measures that must be taken, such as moving spent fuel out of packed fuel pools, are conspicuously missing. Moreover, the report recommends continuing to relicense old reactors, as well as certifying new reactors designs and licensing their construction and operation, even before the Task Force recommendations are implemented. This is does not just fail the common sense test – it is downright dangerous. (Remarkably, since the Fukushima disaster started on March 11, NRC has plowed ahead with relicensing nine reactors, some of which are a similar design as the Fukushima reactors.)
While the recommendations presented by the Fukushima Task Force are not exhaustive, the NRC must vote to move forward on them. After these recommendations are adopted, there will be opportunities for stakeholders – including the public, NRC Staff, and the nuclear industry – to weigh in as they are fleshed out. The NRC must set deadlines for each recommendation and follow-through as quickly as possible – anything less would be abdicating its job of protecting public health and safety.