February 7, 2013

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Should Reject Lawmakers’ Call for Watering Down, Slowing Down Post-Fukushima Safety Upgrades

WASHINGTON (February 7, 2013) – The Union of Concerned Scientists today sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) urging the agency to reject recent requests by House and Senate Republicans to weaken critical post-Fukushima safety reforms and slow down their implementation.

“It is imperative that the NRC stay the course of reform it has charted in the wake of the Fukushima disaster,” said UCS Senior Scientist Edwin Lyman, the letter’s author. “Public safety has to be the agency’s primary concern.”  

UCS’s letter is in response to recent letters sent to the NRC by Senate and House Republicans complaining that the agency is moving too quickly with costly post-Fukushima safety upgrade requirements.

The Senate letter, sent on February 4, was signed by Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member David Vitter (La.) and six other senators, including James Inhofe (Okla.). It was essentially a brief reiteration of the House’s January 15 letter, which was signed by Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (Mich.) and 20 other Republican members of his committee, including former chairman Joe Barton (Texas).

Both House and Senate letters asked the NRC to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the differences between Japanese and U.S. nuclear power standards to determine whether Japanese regulations were weaker than those in the United States before the Fukushima accident, making Fukushima more vulnerable. UCS believes such an analysis would not help resolve safety concerns and only serve to stall implementation of safety upgrades.

“[S]uch a review, although interesting, would be of little practical relevance to the NRC’s mission of ensuring that U.S. laws and regulations are fully implemented to protect the health and safety of Americans from nuclear power plant accidents or terrorist attacks,” the UCS letter stated. “Especially in a time of budget austerity, we do not support directing the NRC staff to divert scarce resources away from their core mission to pursue a time-consuming academic exercise.”

The House and Senate letters also criticized an NRC staff recommendation that the agency require the owners of General Electric Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors—the same kind of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant—to install filtered vents to reduce radioactive releases in the event of an accident. Twenty-three of the 104 currently operating reactors in the United States are Mark I reactors. Another eight are Mark II designs.

The House letter cited the nuclear power trade association, the Nuclear Energy Institute, which is opposed to the NRC requiring filtered vents. According to NEI, “No strategy has been identified where an external filter alone would successfully mitigate releases.”

Lyman said filters are a key part of the solution. When combined with the other safeguards the industry is required to implement, he said, “the filters would go a long way to protect the public.”

“The [NRC] staff has provided ample evidence to back up their conclusion that filters are a prudent, efficient, cost-effective measure that would also provide defense-in-depth by being available to greatly reduce radioactive emissions to the environment during venting under a range of contingencies,” the UCS letter stated. “The presence of filters will give operators the confidence to use the vents if needed to reduce containment pressure if the status of the reactor core is unknown, as was the case at Fukushima.”