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.