Fukushima gives US nuclear regulators a golden opportunity to tie up decades of regulatory loose ends and replace the “patchwork” of regulations that has evolved since the 1960s with a “logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework,” a Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff task force says.

But the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute quickly faulted the task force for failing to analyze in detail what went wrong at the Japanese nuclear station. NEI warned that rash actions, taken before the accident is fully understood, might harm US plant safety.

NRC appointed the task force to explore short-term agency actions after the four oldest reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were disabled by an earthquake and tsunami March 11, and damaged by fuel melting and hydrogen explosions as operators struggled to regain control. That process is ongoing, complicated by site radioactivity, and as yet no one knows exactly what all went wrong.

But Charles Miller, head of the NRC task force, told a July 19 commission meeting that his group focused on how well US plants, and the regulatory system, are prepared to cope with what is already known from Japan. That accident, he said, was at heart a station blackout, with power totally lost from both on- and off-site generators, at all four units at once. Spent fuel pool coolant boiled off over several days, and hydrogen explosions blew the tops off three units.

That led the task force to recommend a series of measures to strengthen US units‘ capabilities to withstand longer blackouts, bleed off heat and hydrogen, and protect spent fuel pools. All those have considered somewhat in previous rules, but exceptions were made and implementation varies across the country, Miller said.

The task force also found plant emergency operating plans are inconsistent combinations of NRC rules and “voluntary” industry guidelines, which need to be integrated into single regulated emergency plans that operators can train for.

Miller stressed the existing system ensures there’s no imminent risk to US plants. But, he said, NRC’s system has evolved since the first nuclear plants were built in the 1960s, with major alterations after the 1979 Three Mile Island-2 accident, the 1986 Chernobyl accident, and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The resulting “patchwork” includes NRC rules, guides and requests, and industry voluntary and quasi-voluntary actions, which are inconsistently implemented across the country.

The Recommendations

Miller said his group’s number one recommendation is establishing a “coherent framework” that updates the nuclear “design basis,” the fundamental requirements for nuclear plants like the largest expected earthquake at a site, and deals systematically with events, like Fukushima, that are “beyond design basis.”

That recommendation is the focus of industry concern. The division between design basis and beyond design basis is a venerable industry fence between what NRC regulates and what it does not, though some rules have already breached it. NEI is urging the commission to sever the regulatory framework issue from the other recommendations.

Commissioners asked whether the framework could be considered separately, and task force members objected, saying the 11 other recommendations flowed from it. Miller said everyone would benefit from a logical system that clarifies what’s regulated and applies it consistently across the industry.

Costs And Benefits

The other major rein on NRC regulation is its 1980s’ “backfit rule,” which requires the benefits of any rule to outweigh its costs. NEI is pressing NRC to channel all Fukushima changes through NRC’s “standard practice.” That would include cost-benefit assessment.

At the first task force report two months ago, NRC Chairman Gregory Jazcko questioned how benefits of avoiding accidents are being considered.

Veteran NRC regulators told Breaking Energy that NRC’s Regulatory Analysis Guidelines bar the staff from considering costs to the public like emergency evacuations or contamination that bars people from their homes for months. That’s happening in Japan now, but the benefits of avoiding such costs are not part of NRC analysis.

The commission will decide how to proceed on all 12 task force recommendations within 90 days, Jazcko said. He said NRC will hold open sessions to hear from interested parties, and then decide quickly whether to accept, alter or reject the ideas.

Photo Caption: Residents who lived within a 20km area of a stricken nuclear power plant offer prayers for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, in Namie, Fukushima prefecture on May 26, 2011. The residents were returning home briefly after the Japanese government imposed the no-entry zone on April 21, banning residents of areas within the 20-km radius from the Fukushima nuclear plant. AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS (Photo credit should read JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)