The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently released an assessment of the American nuclear plant fleet, and a set of recommendations to increase safety at these plants. But Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists says that these recommendations are not stringent enough, especially in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. He talks with host Jeff Young.
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, President Obama told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, to reevaluate risks at this country’s 104 reactors. The NRC’s report is just out and calls for a new definition of adequate protection. We’ve asked Dr. Ed Lyman to walk us through the report. He’s a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Dr. Lyman says U.S. reactors were designed decades ago with a set of assumptions about what sort of accidents or natural disasters a power plant should withstand.
LYMAN: That raises the question, what happens if something occurs that’s actually worse? As in Fukushima where they have protection against a tsunami no bigger than about 18 feet, yet they ended up with one that was 45 feet. So the question is - is the level of safety at our nuclear plants, safety enough against these extreme natural hazards, and the NRC has concluded, no.
YOUNG: We have had, just in the past few months, some close calls along these lines. I’m thinking of the severe flooding in Nebraska that threatened the Fort Calhoun power plant there, a tornado in April that knocked out power temporarily to a nuclear power plant in Alabama. Do these events also tell us that our plants are somewhat vulnerable?
LYMAN: Well, in both those cases, they did escape disaster, but like you said, they were close calls. We do need to increase that safety margin so that we don’t have to get to the point that was experienced at Fort Calhoun with workers bailing out water with buckets and building inflatable dams in the lake - we shouldn’t have to resort to those kinds of measures.
YOUNG: Let's talk a few specifics here - one of the obvious concerns is the power goes out and they can’t maintain cooling systems - what does the NRC recommend there?
LYMAN: Some people don’t realize that a nuclear power plant actually needs external sources of power to keep the plant running and the core from melting down. At Fukushima, one saw the results of an event where the plant loses both offsite power and onsite emergency power as you get to a situation where the nuclear fuel can overheat and melt. However, the NRC never believed that this was a very credible accident, so even though they had procedures in place, they didn’t require any plant to be able to cope with a station blackout condition for more than 16 hours. In fact, most plants only had to show that they could deal with this event for four to eight hours. So the NRC is upgrading its requirements for plants to be able to cope. However, it’s still not clear that what they’re proposing is going to be adequate.
YOUNG: Tell me about the emergency evacuation plans - what lessons NRC is taking from Fukushima there?
LYMAN: Well after the Fukushima accident, the NRC advised Americans living in Japan to evacuate from within 50 miles from the site. And this caused quite a lot of consternation back home because the requirements for US nuclear plants are only 10 miles. The NRC’s view is, “well, if there were an accident as bad as Fukushima, you know, we wouldn’t stop at 10 miles, we’d advise people 20, 30, 40 miles.” But the problem there is, if you haven’t actually put the infrastructure in place so that such an evacuation is possible, then the likelihood that you’re going to have a successful evacuation is very low. So we think that there needs to be a reevaluation of the emergency planning regulations here in the United States. But the NRC is just reasserting the status quo.
YOUNG: In the Japanese disaster, it wasn’t just the reactors causing problems, it was also these pools of spent fuel rods. What does the NRC recommend that we do with our spent fuel - keeping in mind that some of the plants here in the US have a lot more of it!
LYMAN: Well, here in the United States, nuclear power plants have spent fuel pools that are densely packed, and as a result, if there were an event that caused cooling to be cut off to that pool, the fuel in the pool could actually potentially catch fire and melt. We think that the remedy for that situation is to move some of that fuel into what are known as dry casks - steel and concrete cylinders where cooler spent fuel can be placed safely and stored for decades. Now the NRC and the industry are very reluctant to do that because it would cost them some money. And so, the NRC maintains that the current configuration is safe.
YOUNG: The NRC task force report is subtitled: ‘Insights from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident.’ What do you think - is our government really learning the lessons of that disaster?
LYMAN: Well, it really is like pulling teeth to get real safety improvements. Take the September 11 attacks for example, where the NRC realized that there needed to be more security measures. Those are expensive and the industry fought hard to keep any additional requirements as low as possible. There are still some plants that have not fully implemented security enhancements. And it will take a sustained effort on the part of the public and Congressional oversight to make nuclear plants safer. If that doesn’t happen, another Fukushima, perhaps in the United States, could really take the nuclear power option off the table.
YOUNG: Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, thank you.
LYMAN: Thank you.
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