07/18/2011 02:32 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Dueling Punch Lists for Improving Nuclear Safety: NRC Task Force Recommendations Don't Go Far Enough

Last week, a government panel and an independent organization each produced a punch list for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to ensure the safety of U.S. nuclear plants in light of the accident that occurred earlier this year in Japan. One to-do list came from an internal NRC task force; the other came from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a longtime NRC watchdog.

How did the lists compare? The NRC task force's recommendations don't go far enough to protect the public.

The six-member task force did agree with UCS's top recommendation that the NRC extend the scope of its regulations to include "severe," or extreme, low-probability accidents. Those are accidents -- triggered by a natural disaster, a fire, malfunctioning equipment, or even human error -- that melt reactor fuel and release radiation. The agency's current regulations focus only on so-called "design-basis" accidents -- ones that U.S. reactors are designed to withstand -- disregarding the fact that severe accidents can happen.

In addition, the task force recommended that the NRC require plant owners to reevaluate and, if necessary, upgrade their earthquake and flood readiness, as well as better prepare for extended power loss to ensure emergency cooling for reactors and spent (used) fuel. That's all good.

But the task force did not call for expanding emergency planning zones around plants or requiring plant owners to better safeguard spent fuel by removing it from overcrowded pools. Instead, it came down squarely in support of business as usual. That means that the tens of millions of Americans who live within 50 miles of a reactor -- including the residents of New York City -- will remain in jeopardy in the event of an accident.

It was widely reported that the NRC advised Americans within 50 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi facility to evacuate, but here in the United States, evacuation planning only covers a 10-mile-radius zone around plants. The agency's advice to ex-pats in Japan turned out to be prudent: Towns well beyond 10 miles from the Fukushima facility were contaminated by radiation. Regardless, the task force did not recommend widening the agency's one-size-fits-all 10-mile zone.

"There needs to be a science-based approach to designing emergency planning requirements for each site, depending on population density, local weather patterns, and other site-specific factors," said Edwin Lyman, a physicist at UCS. "Those analyses would force the NRC to create larger and more appropriately shaped emergency planning zones than the 10-mile concentric circles it arbitrarily drew around U.S. nuclear plants."

The task force also addressed some concerns about spent fuel pools. But it was silent on another one of UCS's top recommendations: require plant owners to move spent fuel from densely packed pools to dry casks, which are significantly safer, as soon as it is cool enough to do so. The more spent fuel in a pool, the more heat it emits, and the less time workers have to restore cooling to prevent an accident. And in the event of an accident, the more spent fuel in a pool, the more radioactivity it will emit.

The status of the spent fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi facility was less of a problem than it is at U.S. plants -- and it still was a problem. Fukushima had from 200 to 550 fuel assemblies in each of its spent fuel pools, while the average U.S. plant currently has about 3,000 per pool. The pools, which are located outside primary reactor containment structures, "are often housed in buildings with sheet metal siding like a Sears storage shed," according to David Lochbaum, director of UCS's Nuclear Safety Project.

The NRC task force's recommendations were limited to issues related to the Fukushima accident. UCS, on the other hand, took a broader perspective. Some of UCS's recommendations address Fukushima-related concerns, but others focus on problems that have been festering for decades. One dates back to 1980, when the NRC established fire protection regulations, which it amended in 2004. More than 40 plants are still not in compliance. Likewise, nearly 10 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, plant owners have not completed all NRC-mandated security upgrades.

The task force report, released last Tuesday, is the first of the NRC's two-step response to the Japanese nuclear accident. NRC commissioners are scheduled to meet with the task force this week to go over its findings, and a more in-depth analysis is planned for the next six months. That, and the fact that many of the task force recommendations would require public input and federal rulemaking, means it is unlikely that the agency will take any action soon.

Pushback from the nuclear industry also will slow things down. The industry has criticized a number of task force recommendations -- including its main one calling for plants to reduce their vulnerability to severe, beyond-design-basis accidents -- and sees the report as the beginning of a long process. "This needs to be vetted thoroughly...," Anthony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute, told Climatewire last Thursday. "The NRC has another 3,996 people there that have expertise. We've got another 100,000 people in the industry that have a lot of expertise. And there are other stakeholders that need to get engaged."

Other stakeholders surely need to be involved -- especially the public -- but that's no reason for the NRC to deliberate for months, if not years, when a number of the recommendations on both punch lists are no-brainers. "The NRC's response to safety issues has been far too sluggish in the past," Lyman said. "Unless the agency moves more quickly and decisively, tens of millions of Americans will continue to be at risk."