Safety Advocates Criticize NRC Punt on Reactor Filters, Industry Approves

WASHINGTON – Proponents of a new measure meant to limit the release of radiation from an accident or act of terrorism at an atomic power plant are condemning the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s announcement that it will delay its final decision on the matter for an additional four years.

Backed by congressional Democrats and nuclear watchdog groups, NRC staff has since November advocated that the five-member, presidentially appointed commission require that filters be included in reactor venting systems. The filters, already common in other countries that use nuclear power, are intended to restrict the amount of radiation released into the surrounding community in the event the vents are opened to relieve pressure building in the reactor core during a crisis.

Some observers have said the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown that forced tens of thousands of citizens to be evacuated in Japan, combined with the post-Sept. 11 threat of terrorism, have proved the necessity for the filters. The requirement would apply to reactors of General Electric’s aging Mark I design – the same used at Fukushima – and the similar Mark II.

The commission, however, on Tuesday said it would not issue a filter mandate, but instead would study the issue further via a lengthy rule-making process expected to be completed in 2017. Only a staff recommendation that vents be improved to ensure they remain operable during a Fukushima-type crisis will be acted on sooner – within two months, according to the commission’s announcement.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) criticized the commission’s decision in a prepared statement Tuesday.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should never cut corners when it comes to safety, especially after Fukushima,” Boxer said. “We should accept the recommendations of safety experts and not just accept a partial fix.”

Paul Gunter, reactor oversight director for the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, told Global Security Newswire that he interpreted the commission’s decision “to be a flat-out denial of the agency’s Japan Lessons Learned Task Force” recommendations. “Further delay at this point is essentially stone walling,” Gunter said.

Nuclear power industry officials, who along with Republicans on Capitol Hill had pressured the commission to reject the staff recommendation, applauded the decision to delay a decision on filters.

“An important benefit of the rulemaking process is that it increases public involvement and transparency compared to a prescriptive order,” Anthony Pietrangelo, senior vice president for the industry trade group Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a prepared statement. “The nuclear energy industry remains committed to pursuing the most reliable solutions that have proven safety results, based on science and the facts.”

Among the commissioners, only Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane, a Democrat, did not express reservations about requiring filters sooner in comments that accompanied the panel’s decision. The other four commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans, said more study would be needed.

Commissioner William Ostendorff, a Republican, said he agreed with NRC staff that filters “offer a mature technological approach” to improving reactor safety but said he did “not wish to forgo additional dialogue with stakeholders” that a formal rule-making process would allow. He characterized the issue as “important, but not urgent.”

Fellow Republican Commissioner Kristine Svinicki went further, saying the “completeness and quality of the staff’s evaluation are lacking and do not provide a basis for deciding a matter of this complexity.”

Macfarlane disputed this: “The NRC staff performed both a quantitative and cost-benefit analysis and qualitative assessment to determine if the proposed modifications could be considered cost-justified substantial safety improvements.”

In her comments, Macfarlane cited a recent visit to Japan, recalling “travel through deserted villages, full of abandoned homes and businesses overgrown with weeds, and past fallow fields, and unused industrial buildings, roads and railroad tracks, all of which emphasized the impact of the accident from a power plant that was over 10 kilometers away.

“The level of destruction at the plant site was equally disturbing, with debris from the exploded reactor buildings littering the area near the reactors and hundreds of temporary tanks holding contaminated water pumped from the reactor buildings distributed throughout the site,” Macfarlane said. “I came away from the visit with a strong conviction that this must never happen again.”

March 20, 2013