NRC May Issue New Nuclear Safety Rules Despite Denying Petition

WASHINGTON – The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has rejected a watchdog group’s legal bid to have it require that aging atomic power plants make upgrades meant to reduce the amount of radioactivity released into the environment following an act of terrorism or a natural disaster. The agency, though, is still debating whether to issue a similar mandate on its own terms.

The five-member commission on Thursday unanimously decided to uphold a July 10 ruling of its Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. The board had denied a petition for a hearing filed by Pilgrim Watch, a nongovernmental organization that has raised concerns about the continued operation of the 40-year-old Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass.

In its petition, Pilgrim Watch alleged that safety orders the commission issued in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan were inadequate. The commission had ordered U.S. plants of General Electric’s Mark I design – the same used at Fukushima – to improve venting systems intended to relieve pressure inside a reactor’s containment vessel and prevent rupture in the event the plant’s cooling system became disabled due to power loss. It also ordered plants of the similar GE Mark II design to install such venting systems from scratch, as they have not already done so.

Pilgrim Watch complained that the commission did not require that plants include filters that would limit the amount of radioactive material that escapes into the surrounding environment when the vents are opened in an emergency to relieve pressure building within the reactor containment vessel. The commission also did not require that the vents be operable when electricity is not available, as was the case at Fukushima, the group argued.

The licensing board in July denied Pilgrim Watch’s petition for a formal hearing on the matter on procedural grounds, ruling that such enforcement orders “are not open to challenge in an adjudicatory proceeding” as the group had requested. The presidentially appointed commission upheld this decision in its Thursday vote, according to NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.

Pilgrim Watch officials did not by press time indicate whether they would appeal the commission’s decision in federal court. Watchdog groups previously raised the same issue to the U.S. Court of Appeals in separate proceedings involving the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire but the court rejected their arguments on the filters, Burnell noted.

The commission has yet to decide, however, whether to itself institute some of the same requirements that watchdog groups are seeking. A Nov. 26 staff memo recommended the agency adopt essentially equivalent measures.

While the advocacy groups support the NRC staff recommendations, House Republicans and nuclear power industry officials are pressuring the commission to reject them. In a Friday letter to NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane, the Nuclear Energy Institute argued that requiring filtered vents could have the unintended consequence of taking attention away from efforts to ensure that the integrity of a reactor’s containment system is not threatened in the first place.

Burnell said the commission would take the NEI letter into account when making its decision.

Paul Gunter, reactor oversight director for watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, a which supports the NRC staff recommendations, argued that the presence of filters would provide the greatest level of confidence that nuclear plant operators would take advantage of the ability to vent a reactor during a crisis and avoid the type of permanent rupture and massive radiation releases that occurred at Fukushima.

“Industry simply does not want to be subjected to an enhanced order that requires them to address and afford costly containment modifications to address severe accident conditions involving reactor core damage,” Gunter said. “They are more interested in containing the financial costs now than potential radiation releases from another severe accident in the future.”

In a Jan. 15 letter to Macfarlane, Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asserted that the commission has not adequately assessed the differences between the Japanese and American regulatory programs, and said that the prospect of a Fukushima-style incident in the United States is unlikely as a result of what they claim are already more stringent rules.

“In this vacuum, the Fukushima accident remains a justification for regulatory actions that have already been taken and many yet to be considered without a discernible endpoint to the agency’s post-Fukushima deliberations,” the letter says. “Failing to examine the distinctions between the Japanese and U.S. regulatory systems also fosters a public misapprehension that the systems are similar and we face the same risk of a Fukushima-like disaster.”

The Republican lawmakers suggested the commission needs to conduct a “risk-informed cost-benefit analysis” if it is to justify requiring filtered vents.

January 31, 2013
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WASHINGTON – The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has rejected a watchdog group’s legal bid to have it require that aging atomic power plants make upgrades meant to reduce the amount of radioactivity released into the environment following an act of terrorism or a natural disaster. The agency, though, is still debating whether to issue a similar mandate on its own terms.

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