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Tuesday
Jan292019

NRC Commissioners in partisan vote slash agency rulemaking on severe accident upgrades for US reactors

On January 24, 2019, a majority of five voting members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rolled back more than seven years of the agency’s technical study on the hazards and  lessons learned for US reactors from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.  In a vote along party lines, the three Presidentially appointed Republican Commissioners voted against incorporating years of new science and management strategies to safely contain a severe nuclear accident following extreme earthquakes and flooding. The Commission vote drastically undercut a requirement to industry operators to make safety upgrades at U.S. nuclear power stations that were built decades ago. Instead of requiring operators to upgrade, the Commission reduced the rule to allowing industry voluntary compliance, effectively stripping the agency of enforcement action.  Nuclear power stations will now only pay but a small fraction of the cost for implementing Fukushima upgrades determined as necessary by agency staff and independent nuclear safety experts.

The Commission majority voted to allow licensees to ignore modern methods and science to quantify and qualify the hazards from extreme natural events including earthquake and flooding on nuclear safety as demonstrated in the Fukushima catastrophe. Instead, operators will be allowed to rely upon the outdated  hazard analysis that the original reactor design was licensed under, also known as “design basis accidents.”  

As Fukushima's GE Mark I boiling water reactors were not designed and constructed  to withstand the extreme flooding of the 50-foot tsunami generated by a 9-magnitude earthquake, the nuclear power plant site experience three severe accidents that led to multiple reactor core meltdowns and breaches of containment. US reactors are similarly not adequately prepared for extreme but real world events such as unprecedented flooding created from climate change and “beyond design basis accidents” earthquakes.

“This outcome is a complete U-turn for NRC,” said appointed Democrat Commissioner Jeff Baran in his notated vote sheet for the protection of the public safety from nuclear accidents.  Baran charged his Republican members of the Commission as gutting the rule of key Fukushima lessons learned and actions needed to address critical safety vulnerabilities in US reactors. Commissioner went on to say, “The changes to the final rule supported by the majority will, in my view, significantly weaken what will be the agency's most enduring action as a result of lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident. In doing so, the Commission will have systematically and inexplicably unraveled a framework for addressing beyond-design-basis external events carefully crafted as a collaborative effort between the NRC staff and our external stakeholders over the past seven and a half years.”

NRC Commissioner Stephen Burns, who was equally disturbed by the Commission vote, in his remarks  quoted from the official report of the National Diet of Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, where Chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa said, “The earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

Voting to ignore some of the most important lessons of Fukushima, strip the agency of enforcement capability and shield an already financially beleaguered U.S. nuclear power from the cost of staff recommended actions and upgrades were Chairwoman Kristine Svenicki, Commissioner Annie Caputo and Commissioner David Wright.