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US nuke agency quizzed on post-Fukushima rule's flooding, seismic risk change

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Essential Energy Insights - November 2021


US nuke agency quizzed on post-Fukushima rule's flooding, seismic risk change

A U.S. senator questioned members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on who persuaded the agency to drop from its final post-Fukushima safety rule a staff-recommended provision for mandatory flooding and earthquake risk assessments for nuclear power plants.

During an April 2 NRC budget oversight hearing held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, ranking member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., pressed the reactor licensing and nuclear safety agency about why it decided to change course on requiring flooding and seismic risk assessments in its finalized post-Fukushima rule.

"Why the NRC has decided to reverse course from its proposal and make these protections voluntary is still unclear to me — especially since according to NRC' own staff — no one asked for this change," Carper said. "We need answers why changes were made."

In January and nearly eight years after a massive tsunami in March 2011 triggered a meltdown at Japan's coastal Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Republican-controlled NRC voted 3-2 to approve a final post-Fukushima rule aimed at safeguarding reactors from severe "beyond-design-basis" scenarios.

But unlike a draft version published in 2016 under a then-Democratic-controlled NRC, the final "mitigation of beyond-design-basis events" rule omitted a previous staff recommendation that would have required plant owners to consider the potential impacts of earthquakes and flooding when upgrading nuclear facilities and implement measures to safeguard them.

Nuclear safety watchdogs, antinuclear activists and others balked at the idea of voluntary flooding and seismic risk assessments based on disaster mitigation plans with potentially outdated information.

Pressed on the issue by Carper, NRC Chair Kristine Svinicki confirmed that career NRC staff did not recommend the change. Instead, she said a handful of agency experts disagreed with the draft rule but did not go through the usual internal commentary procedures to express their views. She said she has also spoken with critics of the draft rule but confirmed that no public comments were in favor of making the assessments voluntary.

NRC Commissioner Stephen Burns, an Independent who favored the draft rule as a "direct and elegant solution" to addressing current flooding and seismic hazards, said he was not aware of any stakeholder criticism of the draft provision.

SNL Image

Source: Stephen Schwartz, Twitter

"Our nuclear reactors must be able to withstand seismic or flooding events, regardless of when the reactors were built," Carper said.

He also said U.S. nuclear power plants need to be prepared for today's "new climate reality" of worsening extreme weather events, including 1,000-year floods that now occur every couple of years, as is now happening across the Great Plains and Midwest.

The flooding prompted the Nebraska Public Power Districts 810-MW Cooper nuclear power plant near Brownville, Neb., to issue the lowest of NRC emergency alerts March 15 as water levels in the nearby Missouri River rose. As plant workers bolstered a levee with sandbags to keep out the floodwaters, the Nebraska Public Power District said public safety was not at risk.

However, Stephen Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said on Twitter that Cooper uses a boiling water reactor "identical in design to the four reactors that were flooded and subsequently exploded eight years ago this week in Fukushima."

"Absent the tsunami, that scenario is unlikely in Nebraska, thanks in part to the post-Fukushima installation of portable pumps and generators,” Schwartz acknowledged. "But it's not impossible."

NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran, a Democrat, said that requiring such backup portable equipment, which is stored on-site in flood- and earthquake-proof bunkers under the FLEX program, is one of the most important post-Fukushima safety additions. According to a 2015 estimate by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a U.S. industry lobbying group, the FLEX program's safety improvements up until then had cost the U.S. nuclear industry about $4 billion.

SNL Image

Post-Fukushima "FLEX" backup equipment in tow stored in a bunker on-site at Exelon's Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Calvert County, Md., in April 2016.

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

"But the equipment doesn't do us any good if it's not there and available when called upon and that means protecting the equipment from entirely predictable natural hazards," Baran said.

Asserting that NRC staff and licensees spent several years "using the latest science to figure out what are the current modern-day hazards (flooding and seismic hazards) at the power plant sites across the country," Baran said it makes sense to protect that equipment from those flooding and seismic risks — not from outdated hazards.

Burns, an Obama-era appointee and former NRC chair, has said he will leave the agency when his term expires at the end of June, leaving the NRC with four commissioners.