Nuclear task force urges improvements in safety

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Across-the-board safety and emergency planning upgrades could improve the reliability of U.S. nuclear power plants, according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission task force.

In a 92-page report released Wednesday, the NRC's Near Term Task Force -- appointed to re-examine U.S. programs after Japan's nuclear crisis brought on by the March earthquake and tsunami -- suggested "extended design basis" requirements for existing and new reactors.

Although current NRC standards are based on the best data at the time of adoption, the rules have been repeatedly revised and supplemented, resulting in a "patchwork of regulatory requirements" that could benefit from lessons learned at Fukushima.

In particular, more attention is needed to improve safety and monitoring of spent fuel storage areas, and licensees should be required to "reevaluate and upgrade, as necessary, design-basis seismic and flooding protection" for each operating reactor.

The group also suggested stronger emergency plans to further address long-term blackouts, and efforts to find better ways to control hydrogen, which contributed to explosions at the Japanese plants.

THE REPORT COMES WHEN Southern Nuclear is awaiting a final combined operating license to add new reactors to Plant Vogtle in Burke County, Ga.

Any recommendations for review could delay such projects, and could also affect final design certification for the AP1000 reactors that would be used at the site, said Tom Clements, Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.

"It appears to me that the design review of the AP1000 will be impacted and that it will be impossible for the staff reviewing the AP1000 to ignore the task force report," Clements said. "Georgia Power should accept the seriousness of this report and that it will likely have significant impacts on licensing the AP1000, which will impact issuance of operating license for the new Vogtle units."

The task force did note that the AP1000, which has a passive cooling design in which gravity can be used to add cooling water to the reactor, already has "many of the design features and attributes necessary to address the task force recommendations."

SOUTHERN NUCLEAR OFFICIALS VIEW the report, and its comments about the AP1000 reactor, as positive news that should not create delays at Vogtle.

"We were very encouraged and we agree with it," spokesman Todd Terrell said. "We look forward to emerging with a COL (combined operating license) on schedule, and by the end of the year."

Continued licensing and operation activities at nuclear plants, the report says, "do not pose an imminent risk" because a sequence of events like the Japan disaster is unlikely to ever occur in the U.S.

The recommendations have not yet been addressed by the full commission.

"Right now, it's a series of recommendations from a task force, so it is far too early to say what sort of impact it would have on the Vogtle project," said Joey Ledford, an NRC spokesman.

The commission is already scheduled to review the report, and a public briefing has been scheduled for July 28.

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

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