WASHINGTON -- U.S. nuclear power plants must upgrade ventilation systems at 31 reactors with designs similar to those that melted down two years ago in Japan, under a Nuclear Regulatory Commission order that stops short of requiring filtered vents, as some safety advocates and NRC's staff had urged.
The filters are required in Japan and much of Europe, but U.S. utilities say they are unnecessary and expensive.
The order issued Tuesday requires U.S. operators to upgrade vents to ensure they remain operable even during severe accidents, such as the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. The tsunami sent three of the plant's reactors into meltdown in the world's worst nuclear crisis in a quarter-century.
The commission said the order will improve safety and help prevent radioactive particles from escaping into the atmosphere after a Japan-style meltdown.
The commission also directed its staff to study a rule requiring filters at two dozen nuclear sites with 31 boiling water reactors similar to the ones in Japan that melted down. The commission also will consider a performance-based approach that would use existing systems to achieve similar results to limit release of radioactive materials. The rule would not be finalized until 2017.
NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said the commission reached its decision after months of review, as the five-member panel considered a host of post-Fukushima safety reforms. The NRC issued several orders last year on the first anniversary of the disaster, including a requirement that plants install or improve venting systems to limit core damage in a serious accident.
"I compliment my colleagues and the staff for their sustained efforts on this issue and for taking a hard look at a complex matter," Macfarlane said in a statement. Macfarlane took over the agency last summer after its former chairman, Gregory Jaczko, resigned amid complaints about an unyielding management style that fellow commissioners and agency employees described as bullying.
Macfarlane, a geologist, has pledged a strong commitment to collegiality since taking over the agency last July.
Commission records show she and commissioner George Apostolakis, both Democrats, supported the filter requirement but were outvoted by the three other commissioners.
Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group, called the commission's decision disappointing.
"We think the (NRC) staff made a sound case" for the filter requirement, Lyman said. "We don't think we need more study."
Lyman and other critics blamed the decision on intense lobbying against the rule by the nuclear industry.
"The level of industry opposition really was a force that derailed the commission's decision-making," Lyman said.
Anthony Pietrangelo, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's largest lobbying group, hailed the NRC vote.
"With this direction to the NRC staff, the commission is addressing the central issue: What is the most effective way to filter containment vents to reduce radiation releases in extreme situations where a reactor may be damaged?" Pietrangelo said.
The nuclear group has said that filters – which cost anywhere from $16 million to $40 million per reactor – may work in some situations, but not all.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a frequent critic of the nuclear industry and the NRC, blasted the decision, which he called irresponsible.
"The NRC has abdicated its responsibility to ensure public health and safety in New England and across the country," said Markey, who is running for Senate in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Instead of following the safety recommendations of its top experts, the NRC "chose to grant the nuclear power industry's requests for more studies and more delays," Markey said. Even after the study is completed there is no guarantee the NRC will require filters at U.S. reactors, Markey said.
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Top Renewable Energy Sources
Renewable energy made up 9 percent of all energy consumed in 2011, according to the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>, and that number is <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/pdf/0383er(2013).pdf">predicted to grow throughout the next decade</a>. Here's a breakdown of the top sources of renewable energy in the country, from wind to water and everything in between. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Solar Power - 2 Percent
Solar power and photovoltaic cells make up the smallest percentage of U.S. renewable energy production, but its future looks fairly promising. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/03/warren-buffett-solar-power_n_2398816.html">invested $2.5 billion in Calif. solar company SunPower</a> earlier this year. Also, unlike other sources of renewables, energy can also be generated by small-scale solar installations (like on the rooftop of a home or business), and<a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=8570"> declining costs</a> have made solar much more affordable. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Geothermal - 2 Percent
Geothermal power captures naturally occurring heat from the earth to turn it into power. The renewable source is geographically dependent, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=3970">but the Western half of the U.S.</a> has many promising locations for power plants, <a href="http://www.geysers.com/">like The Geysers in Calif.</a>, the largest geothermal power plant in the world. The U.S. is the largest producer of geothermal power on the planet, but growth hasn't kept up with wind or solar development in recent years. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Waste - 5 Percent
Believe it or not, burned garbage accounts for 5 percent of all renewable energy created in the U.S. each year. More than 29 million tons of municipal solid waste was burned in 2010 to create steam to spin turbines and generate power, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=7990"> and there are more than 75</a> waste-to-energy plants in the country. Emissions regulations have been in place at waste incineration plants since the 1960s, but the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/ncer/publications/research_results_needs/combustionEmmissionsReport.pdf">EPA warned in a 2006 report that the toxins released</a> during the process could pose a serious environmental risk if not strictly enforced. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wind - 13 Percent
The amount of wind power has grown for each of the past three years throughout the U.S. and accounted for the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=9931">largest growth in capacity</a> of any energy resource in the country last year. Wind turbines now supply more than <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/19/us-utilities-windpower-usa-idUSBRE89I0TX20121019">50,000 megawatts a year,</a> enough to power 13 million homes, according to Reuters. Federal tax credits, which were set to expire at the end of 2012, have made wind farms an attractive form of renewable energy. Congress <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/davelevitan/2013/01/02/wind-power-tax-credit-survives-fiscal-cliff-deal/">approved an extension of the credits</a> through the end of 2013. After production, wind turbines are net zero, meaning they require no energy and produce no emissions. The only problematic thing generated in some cases other than clean power has been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/24/wind-power-noise-pollution-maine_n_866182.html">a whole lot of noise</a>. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Biofuel - 21 Percent
Biofuels, like ethanol, are created from organic matter like corn or soybeans. Gasoline in the U.S. contains 9 percent of the resource by federal mandate under the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/otaq/fuels/renewablefuels/index.htm">Renewable Fuel Standard program,</a> and more than <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">40 percent of the corn crop</a> last year was turned into biofuel. The resource is slightly more unstable than other renewables because it depends on the productivity of farms - <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">drought or other environmental problems</a> can significantly lower yields and increase prices. On average, <a href="http://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/flexible_fuel_emissions.html">ethanol has 20 percent fewer emissions</a> than traditional gasoline but some types, like <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol">cellulosic ethanol,</a> cut greenhouse gas emissions more than 85 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wood - 22 Percent
Timber accounts for nearly a quarter of all renewable energy created in the country. <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/10/121022-wood-for-heating/">Rising energy costs </a>have led to an upswing in wood burning over the past decade, and nearly <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/steo/report/winterfuels.cfm">20 percent of New England homes </a>use wood for heating, according to a National Geographic report. Although it may be a cheaper alternative, wood burning stoves and fireplaces<a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/energyefficiency.html"> release more emissions of fine particles </a> than other home heating methods, according to the EPA. Burning <a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/bestburn.html">good wood in an efficient burner</a> lowers toxic emissions and lost energy. Oh, and always have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors handy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Hydroelectric - 35 Percent
Almost all of the current hydroelectric power plants in the U.S. were <a href="http://www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/article/hydropower.cfm">built before the mid-1970's</a>, but it's still the highest producing renewable energy source in the country. In 2011, 8 percent of all power created in the U.S. came from hydroelectric sources, but it's also one of the most geographically dependent sources of energy. The Pacific Northwest gets more than half of all power via hydroelectric due to prime geography. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
How To Really Go Renewable
Watch this TED talk on the missing link in the future of renewable energy.