BRATTLEBORO — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted earlier this week to push back safety improvements for the General Electric-designed Mark 1 and 2 nuclear reactors, recommendations made by their own staff after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, two years ago.
The five-member commission was heavily lobbied by the nuclear industry to not adopt the recommendation for filters on reactor vents on the Mark 1 and 2 boiling water reactors, saying they were an expensive response that wouldn’t guarantee additional protection in the event of a nuclear emergency. The filters were estimated to cost between $15 million to $60 million per reactor.
Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC’s Region One, said earlier this week that the commission instead ordered the staff to further study the filtered vent issue by means of the NRC rule-making process.
Thirty-one U.S. nuclear reactors share the same design as the failed reactors in Fukushima, raising questions in this country about the Mark 1 and 2 designs’ ability to withstand a serious incident.
Sheehan said that by going the route of the NRC’s rule-making process, there will be a chance for public input into the changes.
“The staff is to evaluate not only filtration systems but a performance-based approach to preventing radioactive releases from Mark 1 and 2 boiling water reactors like Vermont Yankee, following a severe accident,” Sheehan said.
But according to The Hill, the congressional newspaper, the NRC has been facing “blowback” for its decision to delay the additional safety requirement.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, told The Hill that the 3-2 vote was unacceptable.
“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should never cut corners when it comes to safety, especially after Fukushima,” Boxer said. “We should accept the recommendations of safety experts and not just accept a partial fix.”
Allison Macfarlane, the new chairwoman of the NRC, was in the minority of the 3-2 vote.
Under the schedule adopted by the NRC on Tuesday, the rule-making process for the filters should be in place in four years, March 2017.
Sheehan said that the NRC had earlier asked the Mark 1 and 2 reactors to have reliable “hardened” vents, and had issued an order in March 2012. Vermont Yankee installed hardened vents several years ago, but Entergy Nuclear recently filed its plan for meeting the updated requirements, Sheehan said.
Robert Williams, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear in Vermont, said that the company was implementing changes at Yankee from “lessons learned” at Fukushima.
“We are currently reviewing the NRC decision which separates the immediate issue of venting from the longer term topic of filtering. On the venting issue, the NRC will be directing the industry to move forward with ensuring that a venting system is in place that will remain functional during severe accident scenarios,” he said.
“The NRC will pursue rule-making on the separate topic of filtering, and will require that a variety of strategies be considered — not just filtered vents,” he added.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear industry policy and lobbying group, in a press release said it supported the rule-making process as the “proper approach for consideration of this matter.”
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