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Nuclear energy: Disaster in Japan, new federal recommendations put renewed focus on key source of energy for regionnergy

by Lisa Janairo ~ MLC Annual Meeting Edition 2011 ~ Stateline Midwest
After a “methodical and systematic review” lasting nearly four months, a special task force of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that the nation’s nuclear plants “do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety.”

The NRC organized the task force in the aftermath of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.
The work of the task force was watched closely by state policymakers and regulators in the Midwest, home to 30 operating nuclear power plants located in eight different states. (In the 11-state Midwest, nuclear power accounts for 17 percent of electricity generation, second only to coal. Indiana, North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states in the region without nuclear plants.)

A few days after the task force released its findings, the Midwestern Legislative Conference Energy Committee discussed the safety, security and future of nuclear power with three experts, including an officer with the NRC and a representative from President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

Those experts delivered a message to the region’s state legislators similar to that in the task force report: U.S. nuclear power facilities are operating safely and can continue to do so.

Despite this good news, though, the NRC task force says the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident should be used to “clarify and strengthen the regulatory framework” for ensuring protection against natural events that could cause accidents.

The task force is recommending that the NRC require plant operators to re-evaluate the seismic and flooding hazards that their reactors face, with the intention of upgrading structures and emergency-preparedness plans where needed.

If the task force’s recommendations are fully implemented, reactor operators would also be required to re-evaluate these hazards every 10 years.

One near-term requirement would be for operators to install equipment in their spent-fuel storage pools so that workers would have remote access to real-time data on conditions.

Early in the cascade of events at the Fukushima plant, technicians had reason to suspect that the spent fuel in the storage pools had become exposed to air and caught fire. This turned out to be incorrect, and the situation created a serious distraction for the workers. If the workers had been given remote access to reliable data, they could have focused their attention on trying to avert a meltdown of the reactor cores.

NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko has pledged his support for having the full commission act on the task force’s recommendations within 90 days, with a five-year period for implementing the changes.

Along with raising new questions about the safety and operation of nuclear plants, the Fukushima accident called attention to one long-standing concern: the spent fuel lingering in storage at nuclear power plants across the country.

That problem is the result of the federal government’s inability — many decades in the making — to develop a national repository for permanently disposing of spent fuel and other highly radioactive waste. Until 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy had been planning to build the repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The Obama Administration scuttled those plans in early 2009, choosing instead to appoint a commission to identify a new national approach for the long-term management of spent fuel.

On July 29, after 18 months of study, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future issued its draft report. The commissioners are calling for a new strategy that involves “prompt efforts” to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities as well as consolidated storage facilities.

To accomplish these tasks, the commissioners recommend establishing a new organization “dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed.” The previous program had been managed by the DOE.

The commissioners advocated a new “consent-based approach” to siting facilities — encouraging communities to house a waste or storage facility, rather than establishing sites without local input.
If storage facilities are constructed, the report recommends that spent fuel from shut-down plants be “first in line” for transfer. Michigan and Wisconsin are home to two such sites, with a third plant (Zion Nuclear Power Station, in Illinois on the shore of Lake Michigan) undergoing decommissioning.

The MLC Energy Committee will continue to follow progress on any federal actions taken in the wake of the recent reports and recommendations.

On Oct. 28, a select number of legislators (including from the Energy Committee) and other state officials will be asked to participate in a public meeting in Minneapolis. At that meeting, the Blue Ribbon Commission will seek input on its proposed approach to nuclear waste management.