U.S. Nuclear Industry Faces New Regulations

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted March 21, 2013

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has stated that 31 reactors spread around the U.S. must undertake upgrades to their ventilation systems. Each of these have designs that happen to be similar to the reactors that were affected in the Fukushima incident.

The NRC mandate does not call for filtered vents, contrary to the urging of many safety advocates and even some NRC staff. These filters are actually required in Japan and most of Europe, but utilities here in the U.S. have deemed them unnecessary and overly expensive.

nuclear reactor fukushima smokeThe mandate, issued on Tuesday, asks the U.S. operators to upgrade these vents, thereby increasing the chance for these reactors to remain in operable condition in the face of serious accidents (i.e. the kind of earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima incident).

Should such an event occur, the NRC claims that the upgrades would greatly improve safety and would help keep radioactive particles from seeping into the atmosphere.

Separately, a rule regarding filters is expected to be developed sometime after 2017, with the NRC asking staff to continue studying existing systems.

The Washington Post quotes Allison Macfarlane, NRC Chairman:

“I compliment my colleagues and the staff for their sustained efforts on this issue and for taking a hard look at a complex matter.”

According to Macfarlane, the final decision regarding the ventilation upgrades was arrived at after several months of intensive review, during which a variety of Fukushima- and aftermath-like scenarios were considered. Last year, the NRC had already proposed a slew of upgrade rulings, mostly with a view toward equipping reactors with fail-safe or safety protocols in the event of disaster.

Although various critics have bemoaned the setback as far as the filter requirement goes, the Nuclear Energy Institute (the industry’s biggest lobby voice) has warmly welcomed the NRC vote. According to this group, filters, which can cost between $16-$40 million per reactor, do not have a very impressive success rate.

However, a strong dissenting voice comes courtesy of Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., as reported by the Washington Post:

“The NRC has abdicated its responsibility to ensure public health and safety in New England and across the country.”

Regardless of how the NRC proceeds, a final verdict cannot be had until around 2017, as stated earlier. The order that the NRC has approved provides for reactors to keep operating in the event of a catastrophic power loss (as had happened in Fukushima). But the NRC had, in addition, recommended the installation of radiation filters, and it’s this part that got tossed out during the vote.

According to Businessweek, some of the companies that would have been affected by a positive vote on the issue of reactors needing filters include Exelon Corp. (NYSE: EXC) of Chicago (owning 11 of the 31 reactors in question), Entergy Corp. (NYSE: ETR) of New Orleans, Duke Energy Corp. (NYSE: DUK) of North Carolina, and Southern Co. (NYSE: SO) of Atlanta.

On the other hand, companies that would benefit from a positive ruling include Areva SA of Paris and Westinghouse Electric Co., a Toshiba Corp. subsidiary.

The NRC’s delay certainly represents a “victory” for the nuclear industry, but it is unclear whether it is a meaningful victory. We basically have a powerful lobby seeking to reduce costs to itself against the (presumably) informed position of NRC staff.

As of now, what the NRC is doing is pursuing alternative approaches to obtain the same impact that radiation filters would have, and it will take until 2017 or thereabouts to emerge with some sort of final ruling.

Had a positive decision emerged on the ruling this time around, the Wall Street Journal reports, it would constitute the most expensive part of the overall upgrade recommendations. Indeed, it appears that costs could even exceed the $16-$40 million estimate cited above, depending on the specific layout and structure of individual plants.

The filters would become useful in cases where pressure has built up within a nuclear reactor’s radiation-containment structure to a point where it could force the operator to open vents of some sort to allow the pressure to dissipate. Of course, this means some radiation would inevitably escape. That’s where the filters could drastically reduce the amount of radiation being vented into the atmosphere.

But, as the Wall Street Journal notes, Anthony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, has said that the industry “remains committed to pursuing the most reliable solutions that have proven safety results, based on science and the facts.”


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