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As America’s nuclear reactors age, and become more dangerous, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reduces oversight

Aging nuclear plants, industry cost-cutting, and reduced safety oversight: a dangerous mix, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Edwin Lyman, August 29, 2019  After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) set up a task force to assess whether there were deficiencies in its oversight of nuclear reactor safety. The task force came back with twelve major areas for improvement. Its top recommendation: The agency needed to strengthen its fundamental regulatory framework to reduce the risk that a Fukushima-scale accident could happen in the US. But after dragging their feet for years, the NRC commissioners finally rejected the proposal in March 2016, with then-Commissioner William Ostendorff concluding that “the current regulatory approach has served the Commission and the public well.”

Yet only a few years later, the NRC has reversed course. The agency now says it urgently needs to transform its regulatory framework, its culture and its infrastructure—but in ways that would weaken, rather than strengthen, safety and security oversight. A key aspect of that transformation is an overhaul (or what the NRC euphemistically calls an “enhancement”) of the Reactor Oversight Process, the NRC’s highly complex system for determining how it inspects nuclear power reactors, measures performance, assesses the significance of inspection findings, and responds to violations. Overall, these changes—many of which are being pushed by the nuclear industry—could make it harder for the NRC to uncover problems and mandate timely fixes before they jeopardize public health and safety.

Aging nuclear plants need to be watched more closely, not less. The US nuclear power industry is facing major challenges. Stiff competition from low-cost natural gas has placed many plants under financial strain and at risk of early closure. At the same time, the nuclear reactor fleet is getting older. The average age of the 97 operating US power reactors is 38 years, according to the Energy Information Administration, and nearly all have received NRC-approved extensions of their operating licenses from 40 to 60 years. Six reactors have even applied for an additional 20-year extension.

As nuclear reactor age, they require more intensive monitoring and preventive maintenance to operate safely. But reactor owners have not always taken this obligation seriously enough……

The impact of less frequent and less intensive inspections is clear: The NRC will have fewer opportunities to catch violators and smaller data sets for assessing reactor safety. If reactor performance were steadily improving, as the nuclear industry argues, such reductions might be appropriate. But key safety and security indicators suggest otherwise. ……

The Reactor Oversight Process in a nutshell. To appreciate how the proposed Reactor Oversight Process changes could impact reactor safety, one needs to understand a bit about how the highly technical program works…………

The future. At this time, the four sitting commissioners (there is one vacancy) have not all voted on the proposed reactor oversight changes, but the outcome isn’t in much doubt. The Republican majority, under the direction of Chairman Kristine Svinicki, has already weakened the NRC’s regulatory authority in other areas. For example, in a 3-2 vote in January 2019, the majority gutted the staff’s proposed final rule for protection against Fukushima-scale natural disasters by eliminating the requirement that reactors be able to withstand current flooding and seismic hazards. Ultimately, the commissioners are free to reject the staff’s advice and mandate any change the industry wants, from expanding self-assessments to getting rid of white-level findings altogether.

Without active pushback from Congress and the public, the NRC’s march toward less regulation may be unstoppable. Fortunately, some in Congress have become concerned. Democrats in the House of Representatives sent a letter to the NRC in July 2019 protesting the proposals and requesting a public comment period before the NRC implements them. The NRC complied and initiated a 60-day comment period on August 7, 2019. Although it is under no obligation to accept any of the public comments, the NRC will have to respond to them, justify the proposals further, and explain their impacts more clearly. Hopefully, this additional bit of daylight will help ensure that the NRC has all the tools it needs to protect public health and safety as the reactor fleet enters its not-so-golden years.

August 31, 2019 - Posted by | safety, USA

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