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On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 50-foot tsunami triggered meltdowns at three of six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. It was the one of the worst accidents in the nuclear industryâ€™s 60-year history, contaminating thousands of square miles, displacing more than 150,000 people and costing Japanese taxpayers nearly $100 billion.
The disaster was a wake-up call for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). After all, nearly a third of the 104 U.S. 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 reactorsâ€”and the rest of the U.S. fleet for that matterâ€”to comparable natural disasters?
The NRC set up a task force to analyze what happened at Fukushima and assess how to make U.S. reactors safer. In July 2011, the task force offered a dozen recommendations to help safeguard U.S. nuclear plants in the event of a Fukushima-scale accident.
Unfortunately, the NRC has since 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 (UCS) report. UCS also found that the agency abdicated its responsibility as the nationâ€™s nuclear watchdog by allowing the industry to routinely rely on voluntary guidelines, which are, by their very nature, unenforceable.
â€œAlthough the NRC and the nuclear industry have devoted considerable resources to address the post-Fukushima task force recommendations, they havenâ€™t done all they should to protect the public from a similar disaster,â€ said report author Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist and co-author of the 2014 book, Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster. â€œIf 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.â€
The post-Fukushima task forceâ€™s top priority was overhauling what it called a â€œpatchworkâ€ of NRC regulations and industry voluntary guidelines for â€œbeyond-design-basisâ€ eventsâ€”incidents that plants were not designed to withstand. The task force argued that both regulators and plant owners would benefit from a coherent set of standards that would guard against severe events like Fukushima and provide a framework for implementing its other recommendations. After several years of deliberation, however, the NRC ultimately passed on making any fundamental changes, maintaining that its regulatory framework doesnâ€™t need fixing.
Lyman said this was a critical mistake. â€œBy rejecting the task forceâ€™s top recommendation,â€ he said, â€œthe NRC regulatory regime will remain full of holes, leaving the public at risk from potential accident scenarios that regulators may overlook.â€
The NRC then relied heavily on its vaguely worded â€œbackfitâ€ rule to reject many of the other recommended post-Fukushima safety upgrades. The rule limits the agencyâ€™s ability to require new safety rules if a proposed upgradeâ€™s cost is deemed to exceed its benefits. Many important safety recommendations failed to pass this test, despite the fact that they would have made plants safer.
â€œThe post-Fukushima, lessons-learned process provided the NRC a golden opportunity to reform its inconsistent approach to regulating the industry,â€ Lyman said. â€œUnfortunately, it didnâ€™t take advantage of it.â€
Letting the Industry Make the Rules
The NRC and the nuclear industryâ€™s main response to the Fukushima accident is what they call the â€œdiverse and flexible coping capabilityâ€ program or FLEX for short, which will provide extra backup emergency equipment to cool reactors and spent fuel pools during a prolonged power loss.
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