5 Top Dems to NRC: Fukushima-style Reactors in U.S. Need Upgrades

Feb 27, 2013

Five House Democrats who lead their respective committees today pressed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to require that all U.S. nuclear reactors of the same design as the ones that melted down at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan install vents to help prevent hydrogen explosions in the event of a severe accident and reduce exposure to radiation when they are used.

The letter was sent to the NRC by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the Ranking Member of the Natural Resources Committee, Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee, Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The letter can be found here and is available below.

The Honorable Allison M. Macfarlane Chairman Nuclear Regulatory Commission 11555 Rockville Pike Rockville, MD 20852

Dear Chairman Macfarlane:

We are writing to urge the Commission to vote to adopt the recommendations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff and require that all nuclear reactors that utilize a Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactor (BWR) design in the U.S. install filters on their hardened containment vents and ensure that these vents would be operable under severe accident conditions.

On March 11, 2011, a powerful earthquake occurred near Japan and launched a tsunami that inundated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As a result, the nuclear reactors lost off-site power and several also lost backup power. With no power, cooling of the reactor cores failed and the cladding on the overheated fuel reacted with steam to produce hydrogen gas. This gas together with the steam created excessively high pressure in the reactor vessel. At this point in such a severe nuclear accident there are no good choices, but there are ways to make the consequences less severe. Venting the containment to relieve the pressure buildup and to remove the hydrogen can prevent damage to the containment and reduce the likelihood of a hydrogen explosion like the ones that occurred at Three Mile Island and several of the reactors at Fukushima.

In the 1980s, NRC encouraged owners of all Mark I BWRs to install vents that are hardened to be able to withstand the pressures and conditions likely to be present when venting the containment during a nuclear accident. The reactors at Fukushima installed such vents as well, although the loss of power at the reactor site impaired the ability of the reactor operators to successfully use these vents. In the aftermath of Fukushima, the Commission rightly voted to require owners of all Mark I and Mark II BWRs to have hardened containment vents and to ensure that those vents would be reliable in an accident.

While venting can protect the containment, in nearly all severe accident scenarios (where the vents are most desperately needed) there would be radiological materials in the vented gasses. To avoid unnecessary exposure of the public to radiological materials and to minimize land and water contamination, the gasses vented from the containment must be filtered. This is the practice in Canada and in many European countries. Recently, the NRC staff strongly recommended that the Commission similarly require the installation of filters engineered to work in severe accident conditions on the hardened containment vents of Mark I and Mark II BWRs.

This common-sense measure to protect the public from radiological exposure should be implemented as soon as possible, and we encourage you and your colleagues to resist pressure to ignore the NRC staff recommendations.

Thank you very much for your consideration of this important matter.



Edward J. Markey Ranking Member House Committee on Natural Resources

Henry A. Waxman Ranking Member House Committee on Energy and Commerce 

Nita M. Lowey Ranking Member House Committee on Appropriations

Elijah E. Cummings Ranking Member House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform

Eliot L. Engel Ranking Member House Committee on Foreign Affairs