Our last article focused on new EPA regulations that are prompting significant research and development activities for most utilities. We’ve also written in the past regarding the expected impact of the Japanese accident at Fukushima on the Nuclear Industry and new R&D that will be performed. Here’s an update on expected areas that will require additional research and development.

You may be aware that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in April, named a task force of Senior Manager and Staff to examine the agency’s regulatory programs and how they are implemented in the wake of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima I nuclear plant. The task force engaged with technical experts and gathered information to conduct a comprehensive review of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear events and make recommendations for improvements needed to our regulatory system. Here are a few areas that the Task Force has indicated[1]:

At Fukushima, the earthquake and tsunami cut the plant’s power and wrecked its back-up systems. Without power, reactors overheated, releasing radiation that officials have struggled to control. The NRC’s current rules for plants assume that power can be restored within hours, but Fukushima showed that in extreme conditions, it can take days to restore power.

The task force has looked at whether current plans envision the kind of widespread disaster as was seen in Japan, which made it hard to ship in back-up supplies and difficult to contact people in the area.

The NRC inspects each plant to make sure it is prepared to handle the kinds of historical quakes, floods, and tornadoes laid out in its “design basis.” The task force will look at whether those “design basis” criteria are adequate. But to order costly plant retrofits, the NRC would need to establish that the safety benefits of the changes outweigh the expense.

The task force also looked at what the NRC can do to ensure plants are prepared for catastrophes that are far beyond the design basis. Currently, industry has voluntary guidelines to help plants mitigate damages from severe accidents. An NRC inspection found some issues with the placement of equipment and training of staff for these types of disasters.

There are 23 reactors at U.S. plants that share the same design as Fukushima. The task force has noted the NRC does not have a specific inspection program for vents designed to release hydrogen during a power failure. Specific technical recommendations for venting systems may need to wait until more is known about the Fukushima disaster.

Fukushima put new urgency on how best to store nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for centuries. Currently, most U.S. waste is stored in pools near operating reactors. Water in the pools needs to be kept cool and full. Officials originally thought a spent fuel pool at Fukushima had drained, leaving waste exposed. But more recently, the NRC has said there is evidence that the pool had not drained. Many observers have called spent fuel to be more quickly moved into dry storage casks from crowded pools. The issue is complicated by a political battle over a permanent dump site for nuclear waste.

The final recommendations report of the near-term 90-day review is expected to be released to the public July 19. The task force report is expected to kick off a second review to last six months, and the NRC is expected to take years to consider how to change its regulations. Nuclear owners, however, can expect that differences in safety standards between older and newer plants will likely be addressed as nuclear facilities request license extensions beyond the 40-year existing license.

[1] As reported in Reuters, July 11, Factbox: What is the U.S. nuclear task force looking at?, Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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