In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March, with the world captivated by the worst nuclear disaster in a generation, U.S. regulators were urged to look closely at the security of the nation's 65 nuclear power plants.
"There is no question that the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi site ... will be regarded as a seminal event in the history of nuclear power," Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko said in a speech last May. "We have the responsibility to the American people to conduct a comprehensive safety review to determine whether there are lessons and what they are. I can assure you that this safety review will be systematic and methodical and will be conducted with the appropriate sense of urgency."
Yet with the one-year anniversary at hand, environmental groups and safety advocates charge that the government has been slow to react, and that it has put off suggestions to fix an "incomplete" and "patchwork" array of safety requirements for dealing with severe emergencies such as earthquakes, major floods or other natural disasters. Instead, the groups claim that regulators have prioritized short-term upgrades, including some that have been on the books for years but were never turned into enforceable regulations.
Meanwhile, more far-reaching requirements, including new evaluations of nuclear power risks, from floods to earthquakes, do not have to be finalized for years, according to the NRC.
This is the kind of strategy that has come to define the NRC through the years, according to its critics, who claim that the agency has been hesitant to initiate reforms that could lead to increased costs for the industry. There have even been disagreements among the five commissioners as to how quickly to implement the changes. Jaczko, the Commission's chairman, has pushed for prompt action, while others have recommended further research before establishing new rules.
But there's no dispute among environmental advocates that when it comes to preparing for catastrophe, the Commission has not gone far enough. A report released Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental watchdog group, argued that regulators have "significantly impaired the reform process" by putting off tough questions about the way plants should prepare for catastrophic events.
"What you've seen is basically an effort to stretch out and slow down implementation of safety recommendations," said Christopher Paine, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There's the feeling that the political momentum will dissipate the further we get away from the accident. There's always some other terrifying possibility to replace the crisis du jour."
A spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission countered those criticisms, arguing that the agency is trying not to be hasty.
"It would be very inefficient, to say the least, to just rush out with recommendations," spokesman Scott Burnell said. "We want to make sure we're getting this right the first time."
The industry, however, is already taking some measures that it describes as proactive, but that critics see as an attempt to influence future government regulations for its own benefit. Just this week, the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group, said it has begun acquiring additional safety equipment as part of a "diverse and flexible" response strategy, which it is calling the "FLEX" plan. "We felt confident enough in our approach and the buy-in we were getting from the NRC to go ahead," said Tony Pietrangelo, a senior vice president at the D.C.-based institute.
AN 'INCOMPLETE' APPROACH
In the wake of the disaster in Japan last spring, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assembled a task force to examine safety issues at plants across the country and recommend any policy changes.
By July, the task force issued a report outlining more than 30 detailed recommendations for improving industry safety and protecting its future. The suggestions ranged from recommendations on how long backup power supplies should last, to broader questions about how nuclear power plants should prepare for extreme disasters that surpass plant design capabilities -- disasters such as the tsunami in Japan.
But by September, after meeting with nuclear industry representatives and environmental advocates, the commission's staff assigned top priority to recommendations that "have the greatest potential for safety improvement in the near term," pushing back consideration of many of the proposals until the following year at the earliest. The staff noted that there were not enough resources to deal with all of the suggestions at once.
Missing from the new priorities was the safety task force's number-one recommendation: streamlining the regulations for severe accidents (known as "beyond-design-basis" accidents).
The task force's report pointed out that many of the guidelines that are in place involving severe accidents are voluntary, giving regulators few options for enforcement.
"The NRC inspection and licensing programs give less attention to beyond-design-basis requirements and little attention to industry voluntary initiatives since there are no requirements to inspect against," the task force report concluded. "The NRC's safety approach is incomplete without a strong program for dealing with the unexpected, including severe accidents."
Burnell, the regulatory commission spokesman, said the agency staff is still looking at inconsistencies in the severe accident procedures. But it is a "long-term effort," he said.
Having certain types of equipment and emergency response procedures are largely voluntary initiatives by plant owners.
For example, one package of largely voluntary emergency response plans is known as the "severe accident management guidelines." It's essentially a training manual for what a plant operator should do in the event of a catastrophic accident.
The commission did an audit of the severe accident guidelines last year and found that many employees had not received training.
At 40 percent of the nation's nuclear plants, workers expected to be familiar with the rules had not received training on those rules. And more than half of the nation's plants did not require review and updating of the severe accident guidelines, according to the audit.
"That's not the job of a regulator, to allow some people to be protected and others not," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Lochbaum's assessment is based on his years spent both in the industry and as an instructor at the NRC.
The initiatives that are getting attention in the short term include safety upgrades that have been discussed by the commission for years, but were never formalized as regulations that could be enforced.
The commission began to consider updated seismic studies on nuclear plants as early as 2005, based on new data from the U.S. Geological Survey. But the new earthquake risks are only now considered a priority in the wake of the Japanese disaster.
Another primary concern for the commission deals with a 1989 effort looking to reduce the risk of accidents at nuclear plants with similar designs to the Fukushima facility. At those type of plants, known as "Mark I" facilities, the nuclear reactor structure is smaller.
In the event of a major accident in which a plant loses power, such as what happened in Japan, pressure inside the Mark I reactor can build up and lead to a risk of explosions.
By the late 1980s, the commission decided that owners should build vents on the outside of the Mark I reactors as a way to relieve that pressure in a potential emergency. The commission considered issuing formal rules, but instead chose a voluntary route.
All the Mark I plants had agreed to install the vents, according to the NRC. The commission reviewed the plans and gave the thumbs up. But because the rules were never formalized, the commission had no practical enforcement power over ensuring that the vents were installed or maintained.
At Fukushima last year, the vents played a pivotal part in the crisis. The loss of power rendered the vents inoperable, causing pressure to build up in the overheated core of the reactor.
Workers at the stricken plant faced a dire scenario: do nothing, and risk a major explosion that could send radioactive material across the country; or manually open the vents, risking severe exposure to radiation. The workers eventually were able to work in shifts to manually vent the reactor, according to a recent PBS "Frontline" documentary.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans to strengthen the guidelines, recently issuing orders that would give the agency formal oversight and make the vents a requirement for even more reactors in the U.S. fleet.
THE 'FLEX' PLAN
The nuclear industry, which is responsible for generating nearly 20 percent of the nation's electrical power, has done its part to get ahead of regulators. Over the past few months, the industry's main trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, has been pushing its own proposal for safety upgrades: the "FLEX" plan.
Under the suggestion put forth by the institute, nuclear operators are already buying emergency response equipment, such as generators and pumps, needed to maintain power to a reactor and cool it down in the event of a disaster.
The goal of the "FLEX" plan, according to the industry, is to have the backup equipment available at multiple locations across the country so that it can be flown to a disaster site if needed. Industry leaders call the proposal a "superior option" for safety that will allow operators to get equipment in place faster than if they had waited for specific rules from regulators.
"I think all parties involved think that time is of the essence," said Charles Pardee, the chief operating officer for Exelon, a major nuclear utility operator and the chairman of the industry's Fukushima response committee. "The solution is superior if we just buy more commercial grade equipment, knowing full well that some subset of that equipment may be damaged by flooding or by a hurricane. We're better off just plain having more of it around."
But nuclear safety advocates question why the industry is moving ahead with emergency backup procedures without first getting specific guidelines from regulators, who will be developing safety rules over the next year.
The concern is that the industry's approach may not satisfy the regulatory commission's desired requirements, including issues involving the longevity of the equipment. The early investment "could make it politically difficult for the NRC to impose higher standards, which this equipment might fail to meet," according to the report released Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"This is a problematic strategy, as the industry could run to Congress and complain that the NRC was imposing standards that would render useless all the equipment it had just bought," the report noted. "The NRC needs to tell the industry in no uncertain terms that it is purchasing FLEX equipment at its own risk."
Burnell, the NRC spokesman, said the agency values the industry's counsel but is proceeding with its own assessment of what will be required. The commission is expected to finalize plans later this year.
"Until we've come to those carefully reasoned goals and approaches," he said, "we have to step back and say, 'FLEX is a nice idea, but at this point we don't know whether or not it will completely fit the bill.'"