Catalyst Spring 2016

Preventing an American Fukushima

Five Years Since the Accident, Vital US Nuclear Safety Upgrades Lag
Fire at Fukushima

Photo: Kim Jae-Hwan/Getty Images

by Elliott Negin

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 50-foot tsunami triggered meltdowns at three of six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan. It was the one of the worst accidents in the nuclear industry’s 60-year history, contaminating thousands of square miles, displacing more than 150,000 people, and likely costing more than $100 billion.

The disaster was a wake-up call for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). After all, nearly a third of the 104 US reactors operating at the time were General Electric Mark I or Mark II reactors, the same as those in Fukushima. The accident raised an obvious question: How vulnerable are those reactors—and the rest of the US fleet for that matter—to similar natural disasters?

The NRC set up a task force to analyze what happened at Fukushima and assess how to make US reactors safer. In July 2011, it offered a dozen recommendations to help safeguard US nuclear plants in the event of a Fukushima-scale accident.

Now, five years later, the NRC has rejected or significantly weakened many of those recommendations and has yet to fully implement the reforms it did adopt, according to a new Union of Concerned Scientists report, Preventing an American Fukushima. UCS also found that the agency abdicated its responsibility as the nation’s nuclear watchdog by allowing the industry to routinely rely on voluntary guidelines that are, by their very nature, unenforceable.

Contaminated soil at Fukushima

Bags of radioactive soil from the Fukushima site and surrounding areas await transfer to storage facilities that have not yet been constructed.
Photo: Associated Press/Kyodo

“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,” says report author Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist. “If the NRC is serious about protecting the public and plant workers, it should reconsider a number of recommendations it scrapped under pressure from the industry and its supporters in Congress.”

Holding the Industry Accountable

The latest UCS effort to prod the NRC to upgrade its safety standards, Preventing an American Fukushima is part of a long-standing and concerted effort by UCS to hold the nuclear industry accountable and educate the press and the public about nuclear safety issues.

Immediately following the Fukushima accident, for example, UCS established itself as a go-to source for independent technical analysis, helping hundreds of reporters understand the unfolding disaster by hosting daily telephone press briefings, issuing press releases, and publishing dozens of blog posts in the weeks following the accident. Many of the reporters covering the story knew little about nuclear power and were extremely grateful. Some even sent emails expressing their appreciation. For example, one veteran Washington reporter wrote, “Your team has been a shining light of sanity since the beginning of the Japan nuclear crisis.”

UCS experts—mainly Lyman and Dave Lochbaum, director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Project—were cited in more than 5,500 print, radio, television, and Web stories between March 11 and mid-April, including numerous appearances on ABC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, NBC, NPR, and PBS news programs. They also testified at congressional hearings on the accident. Lyman even obtained and released internal NRC documents revealing that some NRC staff members lacked confidence in US nuclear plant safety.

Most important, UCS stuck with the issue even after the initial media interest flagged. In July 2011—the same month the NRC’s post-Fukushima task force made its initial recommendations—UCS released its own prescription for strengthening reactor safety. In March 2012, the organization followed up with another report, U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year after Fukushima, and two years later, in February 2014, Lyman, Lochbaum and former Philadelphia Inquirer energy reporter Susan Stranahan published their critically acclaimed book Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster. The first half of the book offers a definitive account of what went wrong at Fukushima; the second half focuses on what regulators and the industry need to do to avoid a similar disaster here in the United States.

Residents living near Fukushima are tested for radioactive contamination.
Photo: Associated Press

Like these previous efforts, the latest UCS report pulls back the curtain on a process that has largely played out behind the scenes. We’re working hard to make sure its findings raise some eyebrows—and sound the alarm—on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration, because public safety depends on federal oversight. We need our elected officials to insist that the NRC reconsider the safety measures it rejected, especially replacing its hodgepodge of vaguely written rules and voluntary guidelines with a rational regulatory approach, and establishing a transparent process that allows the public to assess the effectiveness of its reforms.

“The NRC and the nuclear industry have taken steps to address some of the safety vulnerabilities revealed by the Fukushima disaster,” says 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. And let me stress: This is not an academic exercise. The health and safety of more than 100 million Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant hang in the balance.”


Four Critical Nuclear Safety Upgrades

The NRC should follow the advice of its own experts.


PROBLEM: The NRC ultimately rejected the post-Fukushima task force’s top suggestion to overhaul what it called a “patchwork” of regulations and industry-written, voluntary guidelines for “beyond-design-basis” events—incidents that plants were not designed to withstand.

SOLUTION: The NRC should develop a coherent set of standards that would guard against extreme events like Fukushima and provide a framework for implementing the task force’s other recommendations.

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

SOLUTION: The NRC should require mandatory emergency plans that are rigorously maintained, periodically tested, and subject to NRC inspection and enforcement.

PROBLEM: The so-called FLEX program, which is supposed to provide extra backup emergency equipment to cool reactors and spent fuel pools during a prolonged power loss, relies on ambiguously worded, hard-to-enforce directives that allow the industry to set the terms and purchase emergency equipment that may not withstand a severe accident.

SOLUTION: The NRC must ensure FLEX emergency equipment is robust enough to handle a wide range of contingencies. The agency also should conduct performance-based inspections of the FLEX equipment and the plans to use it.

PROBLEM: The NRC staff reversed its recommendation to require owners of General Electric Mark I and Mark II reactors—the same as those at Fukushima—to add filters to “hardened” containment structure vents to avoid releasing radioactive material into the surrounding community. Finland, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland have such a requirement, and Japan is planning one.

SOLUTION: The NRC should require owners of GE Mark I and Mark II reactors to install filters on their hardened vents.