ATLANTA (AP) — If disaster strikes a nuclear power plant in the U.S., the utility industry wants the ability to fly in heavy-duty equipment that could avert a meltdown.
That capability is part of a larger industry plan being developed to meet new rules that emerged since a 2011 tsunami struck the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan, flooding its emergency equipment and causing nuclear meltdowns that sent radiation leaking into the environment. The tsunami exceeded the worst-case scenario the plant was designed to withstand, and it showed how a widespread disaster that damages a nuclear plant can complicate emergency plans.
The effort, called FLEX, is the nuclear industry's method for meeting new U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules that will force 65 plants in the U.S. to get extra emergency equipment on site and store it protectively. As a backup, the industry is developing regional hubs in Memphis, Tenn., and Phoenix that could truck or even fly in more equipment to stricken reactors. Industry leaders say the effort will add another layer of defense in case a Fukushima-style disaster destroys a nuclear plant's multiple backup systems.
"It became very clear in Japan that utilities became quickly overwhelmed," said Joe Pollock, vice president for nuclear operations at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group that is spearheading the effort.
Nuclear industry watchdogs are concerned that by moving first, the utility industry is attempting to head-off more costly and far-reaching requirements that might otherwise be set by the NRC, which oversees commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. Plants started buying the new equipment even before NRC regulators approved the concept. Industry officials say they are not certain yet how the equipment would be moved in a crisis.
"That presented essentially facts-on-the-ground for the NRC and essentially gave the industry the upper hand in how this is going to play out," said Edwin Lyman, the senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who criticized FLEX as a "window-dressing exercise."
U.S. nuclear plants are supposed to be built to withstand the worst possible disasters in their regions, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes. But planners can be wrong.
The Japanese utility TEPCO dismissed scientific evidence and geological history showing that the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was susceptible to being struck by a far bigger tsunami than it said was possible. Dominion Virginia Power's North Anna Power Station was struck by a 2011 tremor that caused peak ground movement at about twice the level for which the plant was designed. It did not suffer major damage and has resumed operations.
The FLEX program is supposed to help nuclear plants handle the biggest disasters. The equipment is meant to assist in the most critical tasks during a crisis: keeping nuclear fuel cool, keeping radioactive barriers intact and making sure old stores of used nuclear fuel don't overheat. If a cooling system fails and nuclear fuel gets too hot, the heat and pressure can rupture a reactor or even cause explosions that send radiation into the environment.
Utility companies must tell federal regulators early next year what equipment they are buying as part of the effort. Those supplies could include portable pumps, generators, batteries and chargers, compressors, hoses, tools and temporary flood barriers, according to industry plans filed with the NRC. Plant operators started buying some of this supplemental equipment to comply with disaster rules stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The cost for individual plants is not yet clear.
Under the plan, plant operators can summon help from the regional centers in Memphis and Phoenix. Both centers are near transportation hubs and spread out so a single disaster would be unlikely to cripple them both. In addition to having several duplicate sets of plant emergency gear, industry officials say the centers will likely have heavier equipment. That could include an emergency generator large enough to power a plant's emergency cooling systems, equipment to treat cooling water and extra radiation protection gear for workers.
Federal regulators must still decide whether to approve the plans submitted by individual plants. The NRC wants to see enough planning to make sure equipment such as emergency pumps could be transported and effectively used.
"They need to show us not just that they have the pump, but that they've done all the appropriate designing and engineering so that they have a hookup for that pump," NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said. "They're not going to be trying to figure out, 'Where are we going to plug this thing in?'"
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In this combination photo, Tayo Kitamura, 40, kneels in the street to caress and talk to the wrapped body of her mother Kuniko Kitamura, 69, after Japanese firemen discovered the dead body in the ruins of her home in Onagawa, Japan, on March 19, 2011, top, and a newly built home sits at the site of the now-cleared but destroyed area on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
A few homes have been rebuilt in the year since an earthquake and tsunami roared across Japan's coastline, killing 19,000 people. But most communities remain unrecognizable, and their residents' futures uncertain. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
The tsunami that slammed into Japan's coastline one year ago was merciless, sparing little in its path. Homes were reduced to rubble, cars tossed about like toys, and boats -- such as this one photographed in Kesennuma, Japan, on March 28, 2011 -- flung from the sea into streets and onto roofs. The ocean's fury, and the earthquake that preceded it, left around 19,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, and sparked the worst nuclear crisis the world had seen in a quarter century. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this combination photo, Japanese vehicles pass through the ruins of the leveled city of Minamisanriku, Japan, on March 15, 2011, top, four days after the tsunami, and vehicles pass through the same area on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
The earthquake and tsunami, which killed around 19,000 people, delivered one of their worst hits to the once-scenic, blue-collar fishing town of Minamisanriku, Japan, photographed here on March 15, 2011. The wall of water spared little in its path, sweeping away nearly every business and every job, and leaving more than half the town's residents dead or homeless. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
A year after the earthquake and tsunami people across Japan and leveled this town, there are hints of progress _ the main roads are free of debris, and some temporary houses have been built. But many in Minamisanriku, and elsewhere across Japan's battered coastline, remain in a hellish state of limbo. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this combination photo, a ship washed away by the tsunami sits in a destroyed residential neighborhood in Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, on March 28, 2011, top, and the same ship sits on the same spot on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
A year after an earthquake and tsunami ravaged the country's coastline and killed around 19,000 people, many of the boats carried inland by the wall of water have been removed. But some, like this one, remain _ providing a stark reminder of nature's fearsome power. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder File)
One year later, more than 3,200 people presumed killed in the earthquake and tsunami have yet to be found. They are among the 19,000 people who lost their lives on March 11, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In this combination photo, Japanese residents of Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, pass through a road that was cleared by bulldozer through the ruins of the city on March 17, 2011, six days after the tsunami, top, and people cross the same street on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
In the days after the earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan's coastal towns, the bulldozers began to arrive, clearing away the rubble that littered the roads, such as this street in Kesennuma, Japan, photographed on March 17, 2011. Those tasked with clearing away the wreckage faced a monstrous task: towering piles of twisted metal and wood, boats perched atop roofs, mountains of family heirlooms, sodden furniture and children's toys. They also faced the grim reality that many of the 19,000 people killed lay entombed in the rubble, waiting to be discovered. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
One year after a powerful tsunami battered Japan and killed around 19,000 people, the streets have been cleared and the wreckage removed from town centers. But the process of destroying all that debris has been slow, with much of it still sitting in huge mountains in temporary holding areas. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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