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Nuclear plants urged to upgrade defenses

| Thursday, July 14, 2011

Nuclear power plant owners need to upgrade protections against earthquakes, floods and power losses, according to recommendations from a U.S. panel studying lessons learned from Japan's reactor crisis.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should require plant owners to have at least eight hours of backup power at reactors, provide emergency systems to spray water into pools holding spent fuel and install more reliable venting for reactors similar to those that failed in Japan in March, the advisory group said in its report on Wednesday.

"The task force believes that voluntary industry initiatives should not serve as a substitute for regulatory requirements," the panel of NRC staff members said.

FirstEnergy Corp. spokesman Todd Schnieder said it's "too early to tell what impact" the report might have on its nuclear power plants, partly because the recommendations would undergo lengthy review by the commission.

The Akron, Ohio-based utility, which operates nuclear reactors at Shippingport in Beaver County and in Ohio, said it would fully comply with any eventual requirements.

The commission appointed the task force to review U.S. safety after the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi plant north of the Japanese capital. The station suffered three reactor meltdowns after a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 knocked out power and backup generators, crippling its cooling systems and triggering the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986.

The panel's recommendations would replace the "patchwork of regulatory requirements" developed "piece-by-piece over the decades" with a "logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework," according to the report.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a industry watchdog group, said the report mistakenly implies Westinghouse Electric Co.'s AP1000 reactor design would keep nuclear fuel rods safely cool at least three days after a power plant lost power, such as what happened in Japan.

In the event of a plant shutdown, the AP1000 has an 800,000-gallon tank atop the reactor vessel building that would drop water onto fuel rods to cool them for about three days, said Westinghouse spokesman Scott Shaw. After that, diesel-powered pumps would pump water from a 925,000-gallon tank at ground level to refill the primary tank, which would continue dropping water onto the rods for four days.

Westinghouse continues to project the NRC will give the AP1000 final design certification sometime this fall.

Commission spokesman David McIntyre would not speculate on when the NRC would make its determination, but he said the task force's report has little bearing on that decision.

Although the report did not attach a price tag to its recommendations, a Republican senator said it might lead to costly and unnecessary burdens on energy providers.

"I am concerned that it will become another weapon in the Obama administration's attack on affordable energy, or an excuse to unleash a regulatory agenda that will only harm our economy," Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

Commissioners plan to discuss the safety report at a meeting on Tuesday, and the task force scheduled a July 28 public meeting. The NRC intends to issue an in-depth report in about six months.

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