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Nuclear agency’s recommendations for aging reactors don’t go far enough

Note: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Japan Task Force today will hold a public meeting on recommendations issued last week after the task "Allison Fisher" "Public Citizen"force completed its 90-day review of the safety of U.S. nuclear reactors. The task force has issued 12 recommendations to improve the safety of the U.S. reactor fleet.

The recommendations by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s task force examining the safety of the country’s nuclear reactors in the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis are a good starting point, but the proposals don’t go far enough.

The task force recommendations, which include requiring nuclear plant operators to re-evaluate seismic and flooding risks and increase back-up power capacity, could help address some of the critical safety deficiencies that proved catastrophic in Japan.

However, the task force fails to address the risks associated with spent fuel pool vulnerabilities.

Fuel pools were designed for the temporary storage of a limited number of spent fuel assemblies. The amount of waste has increased beyond the design capacity of the pools. (U.S. reactors generated about 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel by the end of 2010, of which 75 percent is stored in pools.) If water is lost from a densely packed pool because of an attack or accident, ambient air alone would not keep the fuel assemblies cool . . .

. . . This could result in a fire and the release of large quantities of radioactive materials into the environment. Of particular concern are the types of reactors like those used in Japan – which are found in nearly a quarter of reactors in the U.S. Moving spent fuel from overcrowded and poorly located spent fuel pools to hardened on-site storage would mitigate some of the concerns about our mounting nuclear waste crisis.

The task force also failed to acknowledge the need for the NRC to suspend licensing and relicensing activity during this period of regulatory safety review. On April 14, Public Citizen and 44 of its allies submitted a petition to the NRC to suspend nuclear reactor licensing for 21 proposed projects in 15 states until the agency more thoroughly examines what happened in Japan.

Despite these glaring omissions, the NRC must move quickly to adopt and implement the task force recommendations. Ten years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the nuclear industry has yet to complete new security mandates. Every effort must be taken immediately to protect the public from risky nuclear power.

However, even with increased oversight and regulation, it is impossible to eliminate all the risks associated with nuclear power. In the long-term, the only way to truly ensure public safety is to follow Germany’s lead and phase out nuclear power in favor of sustainable, safe, efficient and renewable energy.

Allison Fisher is Public Citizen’s energy program outreach director