Report: Five Years Later, NRC Has Made Only Limited Progress Instituting Post-Fukushima Safety Upgrades

Public Remains at Unacceptable Risk from Serious Accidents

Published Mar 1, 2016

WASHINGTON (March 3, 2016) — Five years after the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has made insufficient progress in improving U.S. nuclear power safety in light of lessons learned from the disaster, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The report, “Preventing an American Fukushima,” found that the NRC rejected or significantly weakened key common-sense recommendations made by its post-Fukushima task force and others to enhance nuclear safety and has yet to fully implement the reforms it did adopt. The report also found that all too often the agency abdicated its responsibility as the nation’s nuclear watchdog by allowing the industry to rely on voluntary guidelines, which are, by their very nature, unenforceable.

“Although the NRC and the nuclear industry have devoted considerable resources to address the post-Fukushima task force recommendations, they haven’t done all they should to protect the public from a similar disaster,” said report author Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist and co-author of the 2014 book, “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster.” “If the NRC is serious about protecting the public and plant workers, it should reconsider a number of recommendations it scrapped under pressure from plant owners and their supporters in Congress.”

Half-Baked Reforms

After the March 11, 2011, disaster — triggered when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 50-foot tsunami caused meltdowns at three of the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s six reactors — the NRC set up a task force to assess how to make the U.S. nuclear fleet safer. In July 2011, the task force came up with 12 recommendations that, if instituted, would provide a strong foundation for reducing the likelihood of a Fukushima-scale accident in the United States.

The task force’s top priority was overhauling what it called a “patchwork” of NRC regulations and industry voluntary guidelines for “beyond-design-basis” events that plants aren’t intended to withstand. That would give both regulators and plant owners coherent standards to protect against severe events like Fukushima and provide a framework for implementing the task force’s other recommendations. After several years of deliberation, the NRC rejected this fundamental recommendation, asserting that its regulatory framework did not need fixing.

Lyman said this is a critical mistake. “By rejecting the task force’s top recommendation,” he said, “the NRC regulatory regime will remain full of holes, leaving the public at risk from potential accident scenarios that regulators may overlook.”

NRC Lets Industry Make the Rules

The NRC and nuclear industry’s main response to the Fukushima accident is what they awkwardly refer to as the “diverse and flexible coping capability program,” or FLEX, which is intended to provide extra backup emergency equipment to cool reactors and spent fuel pools during a prolonged power loss.

According to the UCS report, the FLEX program is a prime example of the industry jumping out ahead of the NRC. In this case, the industry purchased backup emergency equipment — pumps, compressors, generators, batteries and the like — before the NRC had the chance to develop guidelines for the program. To cut costs, the industry bought commercially available equipment that may not withstand a severe accident, and the industry-initiated FLEX requirements rely heavily on ambiguously worded, hard-to-enforce directives that, for example, mandate “reasonable protection” of safety equipment. Regardless, the NRC largely approved the industry’s plan instead of developing its own standards.

Likewise, the NRC decided to continue to allow plant owners to develop their own, voluntary plans for coping with a core-melt accident, rejecting a task force recommendation to require them to do so. If plans are voluntary, the NRC has no authority to review them or issue citations when they are deficient.

“Once again, the NRC is ignoring a key lesson of the Fukushima accident: Emergency plans are not worth the paper they are printed on unless they are rigorously developed, maintained, periodically tested, and subject to NRC inspection and enforcement,” said Lyman. “When it comes to many critical safety measures, the NRC is allowing the industry to regulate itself.”

UCS Calls On NRC to Reconsider Key Task Force Recommendations

The report urged the NRC to reconsider adopting a number of necessary safety measures, including:

  • rationalizing its regulatory approach to move away from its current hodge-podge of vaguely written agency rules and voluntary industry guidelines;
  • expediting the transfer of spent fuel from overcrowded cooling pools to dry storage casks;
  • increasing the radius of emergency planning zones around nuclear plants from 10 to at least 25 miles;
  • making core-melt emergency plans mandatory; and
  • establishing a transparent process to enable the public to assess the effectiveness of its post-Fukushima reforms.

“The NRC and the nuclear industry have taken steps to address some of the safety vulnerabilities revealed by the Fukushima disaster,” said Lyman. “But so far, the agency has failed to fully learn the lessons of Fukushima. It needs to go back to the drawing board and reconsider critical safety recommendations that it dismissed without good justification. The health and safety of the more than 100 million Americans living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant hang in the balance.”