WASHINGTON – Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko is urging his agency to decide within 90 days how to proceed with safety changes intended to improve the U.S. nuclear industry's response to catastrophic events such as the tsunami that crippled a nuclear plant in Japan.
A task force appointed by the NRC said last week that nuclear plant operators should be ordered to re-evaluate their earthquake and flood risk. The task force also recommended adding equipment to handle simultaneous damage to multiple reactors and ensuring electrical power and instruments are in place to monitor and cool spent fuel pools after a disaster.
Jaczko said Monday that 90 days is enough time to review the recommendations — and was exactly the amount of time the task force was given to complete its report.
"We all know that some changes are in order," Jaczko said at the National Press Club. "I believe we have enough information at this time to take the necessary interim steps" in response to the task force report. The five-member commission is scheduled to review the task force report on Tuesday.
"None of us want to make rushed, poor decisions," Jaczko said. "We must move forward, however, with the urgency called for by these safety issues."
Jaczko's call for action was tempered by some Republican lawmakers, who cautioned in a letter to the NRC chief that the agency should give the take force a full and deliberate review. The letter, signed by four leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan, said a proper review would include a thorough analysis of each of the report's 12 major recommendations, as well as comments from the nuclear industry and other interested groups.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group, said the 90-day response time urged by Jaczko was arbitrary and counterproductive.
"We don't think it's appropriate" for many of the recommendations, said Scott Peterson, a spokesman for the group. The task force report recommends some "fundamental changes" in the agency's regulatory framework that are not easily adopted in 90 days, Peterson said. Specifically, some changes recommended in emergency planning are complicated and potentially expensive, he said.
Asked whether he was expecting resistance to his call for his prompt action, Jaczko said, "We'll see."
Still, he said he did not think 90 days was unreasonable to review the task force report and act on it. Many of the recommendations will take years to implement, he said, adding that he hopes the government and industry can complete their response to the Japan crisis within five years. Some changes prompted by the 2001 terrorist attacks are just now being finalized, a standard Jaczko said was unacceptable.
In its 90-page report, the NRC task force recommended a series of changes to reset the level of protection at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors. The changes are intended to make the plants better prepared for incidents they were not initially designed to handle, such as prolonged power blackouts or damage to multiple reactors.
The three-month investigation was triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that cut off all electrical power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan, resulting in core damage at several reactors, the loss of cooling at spent fuel pools, hydrogen explosions and radioactive releases into the environment.
The task force said there is no imminent risk to public health and the environment from operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. But its members said the current patchwork of regulations is not given equal consideration or treatment by power plant operators or by the NRC, during its technical reviews and inspections.