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US nuclear plants making progress on safety upgrades: NRC chairman

Washington — US nuclear power plants are effectively implementing safety modifications mandated by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the aftermath of the devastating Fukushima I nuclear accident in Japan in 2011, agency chairman Stephen Burns told a Platts Energy Podium event in Washington Tuesday.

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"I think there's been some good progress," said Burns.

US reactors will mostly complete in 2016 modifications ordered by NRC in 2012 requiring that they increase their ability to handle extreme external events such as earthquakes and flooding, Burns said.

One of the agency's post-Fukushima orders required that a combination of permanent, portable and offsite equipment be available to provide water to cool reactors and supply electricity to safety systems in such situations.

Some reactors have been given additional time to make those modifications if they are also installing hardened vents that would reduce the pressure in the vessel housing the reactor during a severe accident, he noted, and analysis continues for additional modifications that could be required at certain plants.

Burns told reporters the agency has not seen any evidence that nuclear operators facing challenging market conditions are cutting corners on safety, adding that his agency's system of inspections would pick up on such behavior if it occurred.

This "is something we pay attention to," Burns said. "We aren't seeing ... a real degradation in attention to safety" at economically challenged plants.

Burns also said he is not aware of any change in the status of the nomination of Jessie Roberson, a commissioner at the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, to become the fifth NRC commissioner.

Roberson was nominated by President Barack Obama in July to the vacant position, but the US Senate has not acted on the nomination.

Burns said the lack of a full complement of members of the commission has not kept it from tackling any issues.

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