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Beyond Nuclear & AGREE challenge Entergy plan to delay compliance with NRC Orders at FitzPatrick

Beyond Nuclear and the Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE) have petitioned the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to convene a public hearing on procedural violations and safety issues raised New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation’s plan to delay compliance with three NRC Fukushima-related Orders for its upstate New York FitzPatrick nuclear power plant. Entergy has asked the NRC to grant FitzPatrick an “extension-to-comply” with Orders so it can restart after a January 2017 refueling FitzPatrick without first implementing the required fixes. Beyond Nuclear and AGREE have charged that Entergy is trying to circumvent NRC standard rules and procedures to avoid submitting a license amendment request that would trigger the opportunity for a public hearing.

Following Japan’s 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe, the NRC issued two Orders in March 2012 to require immediate follow-up operator actions for the loss of electrical power to safety systems that can cause a severe nuclear accident by: 1) increasing the availability and reliability of cooling capability to both the reactor core and the high-density irradiated nuclear fuel storage pools, and; 2) increasing the reliability of monitoring of water levels in the spent fuel pools packed with extremely hot nuclear waste.  The third NRC Order was issued in June 2013 to require the installation of reliable, severe accident-capable, hardened containment vents on all Fukushima-style GE boiling water reactors with vulnerable MARK I and Mark II containment systems. Hardened vents give operators the option to temporarily open containment rather than permanently rupturing them although radiation will be vented in the same process. All three Orders, as issued “immediately effective,” required that U.S. reactor operators begin the design, installation and implementation of the safety fixes for vulnerabilities in U.S. reactors exposed by the 2011 nuclear catastrophe. It was these same vulnerabilities that resulted in three reactors melting down, massive hydrogen explosions and the rupture of the containment structures with significant radioactive contamination to roughly 8% of the Japan’s land mass and coastal water of the Pacific Ocean.

In the case of Entergy’s FitzPatrick nuclear plant, which is identical to the Fukushima Daiichi units, the NRC Orders require the power company to complete the installation and implementation of the outlined fixes by December 31, 2016 before the reactor is allowed to restart from the scheduled refueling outage. Entergy consented to implement the Orders but by November 2015 announced that it would instead permanently shut down FitzPatrick in January 2017 because it was not economical to operate the reactor. Entergy effectively cancelled scheduled work on the ordered upgrades.  In August 2016, New York Governor Mario Cuomo announced his plan for the financial bailout of four financially troubled upstate nuclear power stations including FitzPatrick. At the Governor’s direction, the New York Public Service Commission approved $7.6 billion in public subsidies through the state’s Clean Energy Standard to bailout the New York reactors. The subsidies were enough to attract Chicago-based Exelon Corporation, who already owns the other three failing nukes, into the possible sale and license transfer of FitzPatrick.

On September 8, 2016, Entergy requested that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) grant it an “extension-to-comply” with the three Fukushima lessons learned Orders until June 30, 2017 for  first two Fukushima Orders and June 30, 2018 for the third.

Beyond Nuclear and AGREE filed a petition to NRC requesting that the agency hold a hearing to require that Entergy adhere to NRC standard rules and procedures for making changes to an operating license that impact public safety through the license amendment process. The three Orders modified, i.e. amended, the FitzPatrick operating license requiring scheduled compliance by December 31, 2016.

The Beyond Nuclear petition to the NRC charges that if Entergy wants to change the licensing specifications for the compliance deadline Entergy must instead request a license amendment which triggers the hearing opportunity for any adversely affected parties according to NRC safety rules. The hearing that Beyond Nuclear seeks would scrutinize Entergy’s plan to restart and operate FitzPatrick for at least another 18 months relying upon non-compliant containment with “beyond design and design bases vulnerabilities” identified in a NRC post-Fukushima inspection report issued in May 2011.

FitzPatrick is just one of 22 operating MARK I Boiling Water Reactors in the United States that were built with a containment now demonstrated to be too small to actually contain the extreme pressure and temperature, explosive gases and radiation generated by a severe accident. The three Fukushima reactors that melted down, exploded, and released massive amounts of radiation into the air and water, were all GE boiling water reactors with the MARK I containment system. The lack of a reliable severe accident capable vent at the Fukushima reactors is one of the factors identified as causing the catastrophe, which is still ongoing, with large amounts of radiation still leaking uncontrollably from the plants. 

The NRC 2012 and 2013 Orders were issued "immediately effective" for scheduled completion as  part of the reactor's operating license for a reason. The NRC staff recognizes the risk to public safety  without the fixes is greater. The NRC technical safety staff viewed the fixes important enough to explicitly require scheduled compliance. Entergy's request for "relaxation" now puts the NRC public safety mandate into the spotlight for just how complascense the regulator is willing to go. That has to be done on the public recors with all due process afforded to the at-risk affected population.