By Susan Q. Stranahan, iWatch News
These are rocky days at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which finds itself under attack from the outside for decisions ranging from new reactor designs to safety issues that have languished for years, including the agency's failure to get serious about fire hazards.
Many issues laid bare since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster are anything but new. Critics have for years railed about regulators' coziness with industry, relative inattention to safety concerns and minimizing of seemingly unlikely events -- the same factors that have brought the Japanese nuclear industry to its knees.
What's different now is that some leaders within the tightly-knit community of U.S. overseers are openly expressing their concerns -- including the chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, who has come under withering criticism in recent days for his management style.
He recently went so far as to scold his NRC colleagues for not dealing more aggressively with the threat of fire at the nation's nuclear plants.
"The continued willingness to tie inspectors' hands by limiting the tools they have available to ensure we meet our mission of protecting public health and safety, is more than disappointing -- it is unacceptable," Jaczko wrote.
In a commission vote, taken in late May but officially released last week, Jaczko cast the lone negative vote against a plan that will give nearly half the nation's nuclear plants more time and leeway in meeting fire safety rules, a process that has already dragged on for more than eight years, he noted.
"The bottom line is that licensees have had years to identify fire protection deficiencies and the Commission must close this very long chapter of not enforcing all fire protection violations," wrote Jaczko in a lengthy comment.
Underlying much of the criticism of the NRC of late are doubts about the agency's ability to ensure public health and safety with the nation's current fleet of 104 reactors. As iWatch News reported last month, the NRC increasingly is handing over decisions on safety to reactor owners, allowing them to prioritize risks based on computer modeling and respond accordingly.
Safety issues have been raised on several other fronts within the past week. A rundown of recent events:
- Last Thursday, public interest groups filed a petition asking the NRC to suspend the approval process for a new reactor design regarded by many as the best hope for an industry revival in the U.S. That design, the AP 1000, was recently revised a 19th time by its builder, Westinghouse Electric Co., further delaying a final authorization by the NRC.
- Last Wednesday, as part of an ongoing assessment of U.S. reactor safety in the wake of the Fukushima accident, NRC commissioners were briefed on a variety of safety weaknesses, including significant design disparities between the nation's older reactors and its newer plants -- as well as a failure by the industry and regulators to factor in the unexpected in devising safety standards. "We believe that the [older] plants are operating safely," the NRC's Charles Miller told the commission, referring to plants built in the 1960s and 1970s. "But it's like any technology: the newer version of it is probably going to have more features to it than an older version of it."
- A recent report by the agency's Inspector General accused chairman Jaczko of misleading and running roughshod over his fellow commissioners in a decision to halt further reviews of the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada. That prompted a call for Jaczko's resignation from a Republican House subcommittee chair.
In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, questions also are being raised about the ability of nuclear plants to handle unforeseen events, such as what occurred in Japan. The NRC has launched a 90-day review of safety compliance at U.S. reactors and Wednesday's update came at the 60-day mark of the assessment. The final report is due to the NRC on July 12.
Opponents of the AP 1000 design have argued that the assessment may result in new rules and costly safety upgrades at all reactors, including those still on the drawing boards. They say all work should be halted on the approval process until the full extent of any changes is known.
"The NRC keeps falling further behind [on the AP1000 licensing review] due to Westinghouse's failures," said Jim Warren of NC Warn, a nuclear watchdog in Durham, N.C., one of the groups filing the petition. "And all this is before they even begin incorporating safety changes in the U.S. stemming from the Fukushima disaster -- which the NRC and even industry leaders admit could be extensive."
The public interest groups claim the NRC has ignored or covered up long-standing problems with the design, which has been selected for two twin-reactor projects already under construction, and at one time was the design of choice for 14 new reactors, most in southeastern states.
The two projects already underway, despite final certification from the NRC, are in Georgia (Vogtle Units 3 and 4) and South Carolina (V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3). Utility customers have already paid $1 billion in increased rates to finance construction, the public interest groups note.
If approved, the AP 1000 would be the first new reactor design authorized by the NRC in decades. Critics, including some within the NRC, have challenged the design's ability to withstand earthquakes and severe weather. Further changes in design may be required as a result of lessons learned from the Fukushima accident in Japan.
Also uncertain until the post-Fukushima review is completed is whether the NRC will order so-called "back-fits" on older plants. Older plants, many of similar vintage and design as the Fukushima reactors, were often licensed without features now required on newer plants. In a number of instances, the NRC has granted 20-year license extensions to those older reactors without requiring updates.
That also drew criticism from the NRC's Jaczko. "We have, over the years, done things only half-way and maybe not all the way to try and address these things," Jaczko said during Wednesday's commission meeting.
The NRC is required by law to prove that the benefits of the "back-fits" are greater than the cost of making the upgrades. In the past, the nuclear industry has successfully opposed changes on the basis of cost versus benefit.
For its part, the nuclear industry says it is already making improvements and will continue to do so as more is known about the Fukushima disaster. Three industry groups, the Electric Power Research Institute, Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and the Nuclear Energy Institute, plus nuclear utility executives are cooperating to develop their own response.
"A comprehensive investigation of the events at Fukushima Daiichi will take considerable time," the group said. "Yet, there is also a need to act in a deliberate and decisive manner."
The NRC vote was part of a proposal to give reactors owners more time to switch from fire regulations, known as Appendix R (which are prescriptive in nature), to newer rules that are risk-based and are called NFPA 805.
As iWatch News reported last month, fires are the most likely threat to reactor safety and occur 10 times a year on average. The NRC and nuclear industry have been encouraging a move away from Appendix R, which sets out specific rules, to a new risk-based program that allows reactor owners to adopt their own responses to fire threats, based on an estimated level of risk. In the meantime, they can continue to use interim safety measures, such as fire patrols or other temporary fixes.
Critics claim that the NRC knowingly has allowed reactor owners for years to use interim measures to sidestep full compliance. The vote in May was to set up a staggered timetable for more plants to come into compliance with the new 805 rules.
During the transition, NRC inspectors will be required to use "enforcement discretion," meaning they will only cite the most serious violations.
"It is disappointing enough that we, as a regulator, have allowed the transition of NFPA 805 to be voluntary," wrote Jaczko.
Jackzo has come in for some sharp criticism of his own. Last week, in a report requested by Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the NRC's Inspector General Hubert Bell said the chairman was "not forthcoming" to other commissioners in his efforts to shut down the long-delayed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
According to Bell's report, Jaczko intimidated staff members who disagreed with his efforts to halt work on the controversial project and withheld information from fellow commissioners to win support for pulling the plug on the project. Jaczko was an aide to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is a staunch opponent of Yucca Mountain.
On Tuesday, a leading House Republican told reporters Jaczko should resign. Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentuckian who heads the Energy and Power Subcommittee, said Jazcko withheld information from fellow commissioners to ensure that a scientific review on the project did not proceed.
Jaczko rejected the call, telling a reporter he had "no intention" of stepping down.