A year after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdown in Japan, the U.S. nuclear industry is buying more safety equipment and will place much of it in several regional centers where it can be transported, on short notice, to reactors that are coping with either a natural disaster or a terror attack.
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) outlined its “diverse and flexible” strategy for reporters during a March 6 briefing in Washington, D.C. NEI said its “FLEX” strategy, addresses the major challenges encountered at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station following the double-hit of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami: the loss of power to maintain effective reactor cooling in three of the facility’s six reactors.
Companies that run U.S. nuclear plants have acquired or ordered more than 300 pieces of major equipment to supplement existing layers of reactor protections. The industry initiative commits every company to order or enter into contract for a plant-specific list of additional emergency equipment by March 31.
This initial part of the industry’s reaction to Fukushima could cost in the neighborhood of $1m to $2m per nuclear unit, said Charles Pardee, chief operating officer for the generation subsidiary of Exelon (NYSE: EXC). Pardee chairs NEI’s Fukushima Response Steering Committee. The $1m to $2m per unit figure would not include longer-term Fukushima responses – such as requiring “hardened vents” on U.S. reactors with a similar General Electric (NYSE: GE) design to the Fukushima units.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is aware of the effort and NEI hopes that it will be the template for an upcoming NRC order on Fukushima-related safety upgrades, said NEI’s Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Office Tony Pietrangelo
The equipment ranges from diesel-driven pumps and electric generators to ventilation fans, hoses, fittings, cables and communications gear. It also includes support materials for emergency responders. The equipment will supplement emergency equipment acquired by the industry in recent months and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to help facilities in the event of large fires and explosions.
The industry has added more than $2bn in structural security and equipment since 2001 to protect facilities against threats that are outside the “design basis” envelope of conditions for which a plant was designed.
Union of Concerned Scientists: Not so fast
But the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a longtime industry watchdog, is only lukewarm toward the industry response.
“Speed is not always a virtue,” UCS said in a March 5 report on Fukushima. “The nuclear industry is acting too hastily by launching a voluntary program before the NRC has had the opportunity to specify what measures are needed to adequately protect the public,” UCS said.
The UCS wants NRC to give priority to an NRC staff report recommendation that called for an overhaul of the “patchwork” regulatory framework for beyond-design-basis accidents.
For example, after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NRC required nuclear plants to install equipment to protect their facilities from events such as prolonged station blackouts caused by the crash of an aircraft.
“However, because aircraft attacks are defined as beyond-design-basis events, the NRC consequently did not require that this equipment meet high standards of quality or reliability or be protected from earthquakes, flooding, or other natural disasters,” UCS said in its report. “Indeed, this equipment was never intended for use after natural disasters, and inspections post-Fukushima have confirmed that at many sites some of the equipment would not survive earthquakes or floods.”
But NEI’s Pardee and Pietrangelo said the industry is gleaning many lessons from the Fukushima disaster just as it did from 9/11. This includes analysis of accidents that hit multiple nuclear units.
The NEI officials again stressed their long-stated position that the vast majority of the nuclear damage at Fukushima resulted from the tsunami, which would be virtually impossible at most United States reactors.
The NEI officials also say that industry is trying to be flexible enough to cope with events ranging from the aftermath of aircraft crashes, fires or natural disasters.
Interestingly, both UCS and NEI noted in the past year, some U.S. plants had to cope with hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and even a major East Coast earthquake.
UCS, NEI try to shape Fukushima narrative
The Fukushima anniversary is March 11 – and both the industry and nuclear critics are trying to deliver their own narrative on the disaster. NEI officials said nuclear naysayers would be spreading many apocalyptic scenarios in coming days.
UCS said Fukushima provided a badly needed re-evaluation of the readiness of domestic nuclear plants to respond to worst-case scenarios.
For weeks after the accident the NRC defended the safety of U.S. nuclear plants by arguing that in contrast to Japanese plants, U.S. plants had measures in place that would have enabled them to withstand a Fukushima-scale accident, UCS said. But safety reviews done after the Fukushima tsunami indicated that maybe U.S. plant protections had been over-sold, UCS said. “These inspections revealed that the emergency response procedures to be used by operators at U.S. reactors are often out of date and that the operators are seldom, if ever, trained on them,” UCS said.