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US report urges overhaul of nuclear rules

A key task force formed after the Fukushima disaster recommended the US nuclear regulator take a new, tougher approach to safety, which could force plants to plan for catastrophes far beyond what they were originally designed to withstand.

world Updated: Jul 13, 2011 08:35 IST

A key task force formed after the Fukushima disaster recommended the US nuclear regulator take a new, tougher approach to safety, which could force plants to plan for catastrophes far beyond what they were originally designed to withstand.

In the most far-reaching review of US nuclear safety since the September 11 attacks a decade ago, the report suggests a philosophical shift is needed to unify a patchwork of formal rules and industry guidelines, ensuring all are overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Among the 34 recommendations, the task force urged tougher standards for back-up power supplies, back-up water supplies for pools holding plant waste, and improvements in reactors that share the same design as Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The report is the US government's most definitive response yet to the earthquakes and floods that caused a partial meltdown at Fukushima. America's response could set a template for other nations that look to the world's biggest nuclear power generator to set the standard for safety.

If adopted, the report could lead to cost increases for operators of the nation's fleet of 104 reactors, such as Exelon, Entergy, and PG&E. The industry is already grappling with the competitive threat from cheap and abundant supplies of natural gas.

It's hard to say how much the ideas could cost the industry, said Christine Tezak, an energy policy analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co, noting much will depend on details of decisions still to be made by the NRC.
"It's a laundry list. Whether this adds up to a cooling tower and puts you out of business, it's too early to tell," Tezak said.

The five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission will need to decide whether the regulatory shift is warranted. The task force did not find any immediate safety issues.

"The current regulatory approach and more importantly the resultant plant capabilities allowed the task force to conclude that a sequence of events like that in Fukushima is unlikely to occur in the United States," according to the report obtained by Reuters Tuesday evening.

The report, which the NRC will officially release on Wednesday, is likely to disappoint nuclear critics who had called for the U.S. regulator to pause on renewing licenses for aging plants, and making decisions on new reactors. The task force did not go that far.

"Continued operation and continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety," the report said.

Fukushima sparked regulatory soul-search
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the large Fukushima nuclear plant, and officials in Japan continue to grapple with cleaning up radioactive waste from the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.
It could take years before officials fully understand what happened there, prompting a senior lawmaker to label the task force ideas as premature.

"Why has the NRC suddenly recommended sweeping regulatory changes in this report apparently without an adequate technical or regulatory basis to justify these modifications?" said James Inhofe, senior Republican on the Senate's Environment and Public Works committee, which has oversight of the NRC.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobby group, also said more information was needed from Japan.
"A 90-day review does not permit a complete picture of a still-emerging situation," the group said in a statement.

But Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat and long-time industry critic, said the NRC should move ahead quickly.
Markey said he was disappointed the report did not enlarge emergency evacuation zones around nuclear power plants, nor recommend that spent fuel be moved into dry casks from pools, where most of the radioactive waste is currently stored.

The task force praised new reactors that include passive features, saying the new designs would be in line with many of its recommendations.

It urged the NRC to complete its review "without delay" of Toshiba Corp's Westinghouse AP1000 reactor and GE-Hitachi's Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor.

The AP1000 is the reactor design of choice for the nation's first new nuclear plants in 30 years -- Southern Co in Georgia and SCANA Corp in South Carolina.

The NRC will next embark on a six-month broader review, and is expected to invite industry and the public to participate.
Commissioners are slated to give their first public statements on the task force recommendations at a public hearing on July 19, while Chairman Gregory Jaczko -- who is pushing for an expedited response -- will speak publicly at a National Press Club event a day earlier.