Lessons learned from last year’s Fukushima meltdown are prompting enhanced safety measures for American nuclear facilities. Coinciding with the recent anniversary of Japan’s nuclear plant disaster, federal regulators announced a new set of precautions designed to ensure that a similar tragedy doesn’t befall the United States.
After spending the past year carefully evaluating the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said it has devised a strategy to prevent similar mistakes. In an effort to improve disaster preparedness at American facilities the agency recently authorized the first of several safety recommendations to be implemented over the next few years.
According to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, the new guidelines represent “a significant step forward on our post-Fukushima efforts.” In a statement, Jaczko explained that the orders reflect agency efforts to produce a quick and comprehensive package, but said there’s “still a great deal of work ahead of us.”
The NRC has divided its recommendations into three tiers. The first tier—effective immediately—includes the most critical steps, such as seismic and flood reevaluations, as well as ensuring that plants integrate emergency operating procedures into their disaster management protocol. Tier 2 evaluates facility preparedness for other environmental hazards, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. And tier 3 includes long-term evaluations that the NRC said requires “further study to support a regulatory action.”
Regulators said the new orders build on established regulatory efforts. As part of the recommendations, every commercial nuclear plant—including the recently licensed Vogtle reactors—is advised to improve the protection of the safety equipment the NRC had installed after 9/11.
The work put into the new NRC recommendations began soon after the massive quake hit the Japanese coast. The agency says it knew the Fukushima plant was in trouble when it learned the facility had lost the power necessary to run its cooling systems. Later, when explosions rocked the stations, regulators could clearly see that the plant’s core was damaged, leaking several tons of radioactive water.
Within two weeks of the disaster, the NRC dispatched a task force to evaluate the incident for insights that might prove helpful for U.S. reactors. In July 2011, the agency released a report addressing a strategy to mitigate accidents resulting from natural phenomena.
While the task force concluded that the sequence of events seen in Japan was unlikely to occur in the United States, they stressed that any accident involving radioactive releases on the same scale as Fukushima was “inherently unacceptable.”
According to the NRC, examining incidents of “low likelihood and high consequence” go a long way in strengthening safety measures. Regulators determined that the Fukushima disaster was caused by a natural event far more severe than the Japanese reactor was designed to withstand. Based on its evaluation, the task force recommended requirements for beyond-design-basis events and other industry initiatives to enhance the U.S. regulatory framework.
In addition to the recent orders, more changes are expected soon. In a statement for the July 2011 report, Commissioner Jaczko said the NRC and the nuclear industry must commit to complete and implement the process of applying the lessons of the Fukushima accident by 2016.
“This will take a lot of hard work, strong and decisive leadership from the commission, and an even stronger commitment by our licensees to put safety first,” said Jaczko. “We have no other choice. The costs of inaction are simply too high.”