America’s nuclear power industry is making a major pro-active effort to increase severe accident safety factors, independent of government regulators. A proposal has been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) outlining physical and procedural augmentations to the safety upgrades suggested by the NRC after Fukushima. Regulatory changes due to 9/11 took many years to occur. The nuclear industry feels the Fukushima accident makes it imperative that Fukushima-based safety-factor enhancements can occur much sooner by doing it themselves.

Three Mile Island’s accident in 1979 began a three-decade period of relative meekness with respect to upgrading safety equipment by the industry. It would not make any effort to enhance safety until the NRC created new regulations and mandated changes. Nuclear plant owners held back because they would not know if any self-generated improvements would comply with future regulatory changes. If they didn’t meet the new standards, the money and effort that went into independent change would be wasted. Regulatory changes after TMI took between three and five years to become law, with similar periods of delay after Chernobyl and 9/11. Today’s American nuke industry feels they cannot wait for the government after Fukushima. They can do it themselves and save considerable time in the process. This is a relatively radical departure from the past 30 years of regulatory and industry interaction. It is a positive step towards appropriate self-regulation.

NEI says the industry will propose twin sets of emergency equipment to be located at opposite sides of the plant, and steps like installing new plumbing connections so that emergency pumps could introduce water into existing pipes quickly and efficiently. The industry also suggests forming regional support centers where even more equipment would be available to serve plants at different locations. The industry’s proposal is essentially an emergency tool kit for an unknown emergency. (NY Times) These additions to the already considerable safety factors built into all nukes fall in line with the “Lessons Learned” reports that have emerged from the NRC and IAEA after Fukushima. NEI says all that is needed is NRC assurance that any immediate efforts be given credit with respect to future Fukushima-based regulatory changes.

In what seems to be as positive development, Martin Virgilio, the NRC’s deputy executive director for reactor preparedness programs says the agency finds the proposal to be an “acceptable methodology”. The NRC needs to give support for the potential program to get it moving now, and not tomorrow. Washington needs to virtually ignore the “it must be perfect” and “we can’t rust the industry” rhetoric inflicted by prophets of nuclear energy doom like David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who decries the industry proposal by saying it is “overly optimistic” and “falsely assumes that its measures will be 100% successful”. (Bloomberg) These are empty criticisms that have no basis in reality. NEI has neither said nor implied anything of the sort. This is not time for politically-predicated compromise with hardened nuclear critics. It’s time to move ahead with confidence.

This weekend’s updates…

  • Government sources say the NISA is on the verge of approving nuclear stress test results for the first time. The approval would be for two nuclear plants at the Oi nuclear station in Fukui Prefecture. The data submitted by management for both plants show they could withstand earthquakes 1.8 times greater than the region’s potential for a worst case temblor. In addition, the plants can tolerate tsunami 4 times greater than the worst case projections for the region. This does not mean the units will be immediately restarted as IAEA review and local government politics remain as hurdles to be surmounted. (Japan Times)
  • The Independent Investigation Commission of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident has heard former P.M. Naoto Kan’s explanation of his actions concerning Fukushima during the accident in March, 2011. This marks the first time Kan has been brought before a formal investigative committee. Unfortunately, the session was behind closed doors and there is no formal report on what Kan told the civic panel, but sources say he defended his actions saying it was the best he could do given the situation. He added that before March 11 he was like everyone else, believing the possibility of a nuclear accident was zero. (NHK World)
  • Concrete containing crushed stone that may have detectable levels of Cesium has been sold to over 200 Japanese construction firms. Radioactive Cesium was detected under a new apartment building in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, where some of  the concrete was used. Radiation exposures inside the building are slightly higher than outside, so it is assumed the concrete is “tainted”. The crushed stone has been shipped from a Namie quarry since April and used in buildings and roads throughout Japan. The quarry operator says they did not use surface stone to make the aggregate, but rather rock from beneath the surface. They felt there would be no Cesium in the material. (NHK World)
  • As morbid fear of radiation swept across Japan last spring, one community (Nagareyama) quickly developed a decontamination plan. Many residents were shocked when the plan included citizens in the clean-up work, fearing their health would be put at risk. In addition, Tokyo took political umbrage with Nagareyama creating on a plan independent of the government. “We unfortunately rushed the decision on the plan, thinking we could get support from the central government,” said Keiji Tanaka, head of the Nagareyama’s radiation response office. Due to the laborious slowness of Tokyo’s decontamination planning, the local government decided to reinitiate their own plan. Functioning together, community officials and residents have been reducing contamination levels in some schools and playgrounds. To get citizen support, revisions have been made to the earlier official plans saying work can only proceed as long as residents join in the effort. The revisions conclude, “The city cannot do it alone”. About 30 parents in the city have formed the “Dig Here Wanwan Brigade”, a volunteer decontamination group. Its
    leader, Teruo Kawada, 36, father of an 11-month-old son, wrote on the group’s blog, “This is our chance to make our opinions heard.” Seiichi Someya, head of Kashiwa’s radiation response office, said he didn’t expect such a response from citizens of all ages, “No matter who you are, everyone wants to ‘reduce radiation levels.” (Asahi Shimbun)
  • An international anti-nuclear conference and rally has been held in Yokohama. 30 countries are represented, including Germany and the United States, along with 200 Japanese groups. “Nuclear power plants are all over the world. In order to deal with this issue, we must create a global network,” said Tatsuya Yoshioka, director of the nongovernmental organization Peace Boat. Germany’s Rebecca Harms, a member of the European Parliament, said the Fukushima crisis had a strong impact on Europe, pointing to Germany’s recent decision to close eight reactors, “Please, people of Japan, learn from the German experience.” (Japan Times) On Sunday, the conference made a formal declaration for protection of rights with Fukushima victims including, “The right to evacuation, health care, decontamination, compensation and the right to enjoy the same standard of living as before March 11, 2011.” Mainichi Shimbun)
  • A pilot decontamination site in Minamisoma has been shown to the Press. Decontamination wastes have been buried in a plastic-lined pit on city property and covered with clay. Radiation levels at the decontaminated area dropped by 98%. Based on this success, the city plans of a full decontamination of their areas outside the 20km no-go zone in February…if they can find someplace to put the material generated by the work. Nobody wants it in their back yard. (Yomiuri Shimbun)