Commissioners again outvote Chairman and reject expert staff recommendations to deem upgrades necessary for adequate protection
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Congress’s leading voice on nuclear safety, issued the following statement in response to the upcoming one-year anniversary of the March 11 Fukushima meltdowns and on today’s release of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) votes on the first Orders to implement post-Fukushima safety upgrades. These Orders mandate hardened vents in certain nuclear reactor designs to prevent hydrogen explosions, steps to mitigate the effects of a large earthquake or other external event on a nuclear reactor, and technologies to monitor conditions in spent nuclear fuel pools during emergencies. However, despite the support of Chairman Jaczko for the repeated recommendations of NRC’s top experts, four NRC Commissioners who have consistently voted against strong safety measures each rejected the implementation of some or all of these Orders through the use of a regulatory framework that concludes that they are necessary for the adequate protection of nuclear power plants.
“Almost one year ago, three nuclear reactors melted down because of an extended blackout that was itself caused by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. While I am encouraged that the Commission supports moving forward with three of the most straightforward and quickly-issued nuclear safety Orders recommended by their own expert staff, I am disappointed that several Commissioners once again have rejected the regulatory justification that they are necessary for the adequate protection of nuclear reactors in this country,” said Rep. Markey. “These Commissioners appear unwilling to state what is obvious to most observers – that the Fukushima meltdowns have revealed safety inadequacies that need to be corrected to adequately protect America's nuclear fleet.
“Unfortunately, most of the Commissioners at the NRC have spent more time in the year since the Fukushima meltdowns trying to undermine Chairman Jaczko than undertaking safety improvements. The majority of NRC Commissioners have consistently voted to reject the recommendations of the NRC Near-Term Task Force and implement the upgrades in a manner that acknowledges that they are necessary to ensure the adequate protection of nuclear power plants. We need the NRC to be an industry watchdog, not an industry lapdog. It is urgent that the NRC Commissioners stop the delays, turn off the soap opera and vote to address the vulnerabilities to America’s nuclear fleet that were revealed by the Fukushima meltdowns.”
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the NRC determined that some nuclear security upgrades were required to be implemented for the “adequate protection” of all U.S. nuclear reactors. This meant that nuclear reactors would not be considered to be sufficiently secure without these new measures, and that an additional cost-benefit “backfit” analysis would not be required to justify their implementation. The “adequate protection” concept is derived from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, and is reflected in NRC’s “Backfit Rule” which specifies that new regulations for existing nuclear reactors are not required to include this extra cost-benefit “backfit” analysis when the new regulations are “necessary to ensure that the facility provides adequate protection to the health and safety of the public.”
Both the NRC Fukushima Task Force and the NRC staff who reviewed the Task Force report concluded that the new post-Fukushima safety recommendations, including the Orders issued today, were also necessary for the “adequate protection” of existing U.S. nuclear power plants, and that additional cost-benefit analysis should not be required to justify their implementation.
While Chairman Jaczko’s vote re-affirmed his support of all the Near-Term Task Force’s recommendations, including the need to mandate them all on the basis that they are necessary for the adequate protection of all U.S. nuclear power plants, Commissioner Svinicki did not do so for any of the Orders, Commissioner Magwood did not do so for two of the three Orders, and Commissioners Apostolakis and Ostendorff rejected that basis for one of the three. As a result, the Order requiring technologies to monitor conditions in spent nuclear fuel pools during emergencies will proceed using a different regulatory basis. More importantly, the inability of the Commission to unanimously accept its own staff’s recommendations on these most straightforward safety measures presents an ominous signal of the manner in which the more complicated next sets of safety measures will be considered.
Four of the Commissioners currently serving at the NRC regrettably have a history of voting against the safety recommendations put forward by technical experts, including its own advisory committees. Some of these votes have occurred since the meltdowns. A partial summary of these votes can be found HERE.
As the leading Congressional voice for nuclear safety, Rep. Markey has also led the calls for the Commission to quickly adopt all of the recommendations made by the expert Near Term Task Force on Fukushima. His other major efforts related to the Japanese disaster include:
Just days before the earthquake in Japan, Rep. Markey wrote a letter to the NRC urging the Commission not to approve the Westinghouse AP1000 design until serious safety concerns were addressed. One of NRC’s longest-serving staff, Dr. John Ma, had warned in NRC documents that the reactor’s containment could shatter “like a glass cup” due to flaws in the design of the shield building if impacted by an earthquake or commercial aircraft. The shield building has the critical safety function of preventing damage to the reactor that could cause fuel meltdowns and radiation releases. On February 9 the Commission over-rode Chairman Greg Jaczko by a 4-1 vote to issue the operating license for two nuclear reactors to be built at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia without a requirement that implementation of the post-Fukushima safety upgrades be a mandatory license condition.
In late March 2011, Rep. Markey introduced H.R. 1242, the Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act of 2011. The legislation calls for the NRC to ensure that nuclear power plants and spent nuclear fuel pools can withstand and adequately respond to earthquakes, tsunamis, strong storms, long power outages, or other events that threaten a major impact. Rep. Markey’s bill also calls for a moratorium on nuclear power plant licenses, license extensions, and new nuclear reactor designs until an overhaul of nuclear safety to address the inadequacies exposed by the Fukushima meltdowns is completed.
In late June, Rep. Markey’s office released the report, “Fukushima Fallout: Regulator Loopholes at U.S. Nuclear Plants”, detailing several inadequacies of NRC safety regulations following the Fukushima crisis, including inadequacies related to the safety of spent fuel pools and the ability of nuclear power plants to mitigate the effects of and respond to a loss of electricity.
The December Markey report entitled “Regulatory Meltdown” was prepared following the review of thousands of pages of documents, including emails, correspondence, meeting minutes and voting records, and found a concerted effort by Commissioners William Magwood, Kristine Svinicki, William Ostendorff and George Apostolakis to undermine the efforts of the Fukushima Task Force with request for endless additional study in an effort to delay the release and implementation of the task force’s final recommendations. Documents also show open hostility on the part of the four Commissioners toward efforts of NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko to fully and quickly implement the recommendations of the Task Force, despite efforts on the part of the Chairman to keep the other four NRC Commissioners fully informed regarding the Japanese emergency. The report also found that on November 7, 2011, Commissioner Magwood’s chief of staff emailed the Commissioner recommending that he add an item to his as-yet unpublished vote on an upcoming NRC decision on how to implement some of the post-Fukushima Task Force recommendations. The item was also reportedly included in Commissioner William Ostendorff’s unpublished vote, and would disapprove the NRC staff’s recommendation to require the safety upgrades to be implemented as retrofits to existing reactors in order to ensure the “adequate protection” of these facilities. If such an item was approved, it could mean that these safety upgrades might not have to be undertaken at all because the industry could argue as part of that future analysis that the requirements are too expensive.