Nuclear power plant flood risk: Sandy was just a warm-up

Original Reporting | ByHeather Rogers | Energy, Infrastructure, Regulation

The NRC is enacting its post-Fukushima recommendations in three tiers, the first of which has a deadline of 2017. However, the remaining two rounds currently have no due dates, and none of the rounds requires planning for current and future effects of global warming.

To some people, the NRC’s timeline of five years for the completion of Tier 1 reassessments and changes, and the lack of deadlines for Tiers 2 and 3 is unacceptable. Among the critics is Gregory P. Jaczko, former chairman of the NRC, under whose tenure the recommendations were studied, written and issued. (Jaczko left the agency in July of this year.) He would have preferred all recommendations be carried out in a single phase as opposed to divided into three tiers, and he thinks all of the changes could and should be made quickly.

“Make the metric not ‘How long is this going to take us?’ but ‘What do we need to do in order to get it done in five years?’” — Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the NRC

“I still think the right answer would have been to shoot for five years,” Jaczko told Remapping Debate. It would be a lot of work, he said, noting that plants would have to bring in outside engineers, hydrogeologists, and other experts to conduct analyses and plan improvements, not to mention construction crews to make the changes. Doing so, he added, would be expensive. But neither point justifies delay, he said. “Make the metric not ‘How long is this going to take us?’ but ‘What do we need to do in order to get it done in five years?’”

One factor impeding faster upgrades, as Jaczko sees it, is that the NRC tends to accept the claims of many plants that assessments, analyses, and improvements can only be done when a plant shuts down a reactor for regularly scheduled refueling and maintenance, which happens every 18 to 24 months.

Indeed, Sheehan, the NRC spokesperson, takes the schedule defined by the plants’ refueling windows as a given when explaining the five-year time frame for the completion of Tier 1.

Jaczko had a different view. “Changes can be made at any time if they’re necessary for safety,” he said. “There’s no law that prevents the NRC from requiring changes during the period between scheduled outages.”

 

What are some basic flood mitigation strategies that could be implemented quickly?

Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive and current chief engineer at Fairewinds Energy Education, a non-profit organization critical of the nuclear industry, offered ideas for what could be done in the near future to safeguard against flooding at coastal nuclear plants.

He suggested protecting each nuclear plant’s pump motors against floodwaters by reinforcing them. First, that means locating the motor in a watertight room — with no windows and a sealed flood door — as some plants have already done. But, Gundersen said, that’s not enough, because although the room is sealed, it is not designed to accommodate a surge that puts continued pressure on the structure. If the water reaches high enough levels, it can begin to undermine the room’s integrity. Because of the pressure “you’ll still get the water squirting in, so you have to make a sealed pump in a sealed room,” he said.

Reilly of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness said that upgrades like those suggested by Gundersen, as well as higher flood walls, could and should be put in place at relevant sites immediately.

Above and beyond the physical changes at plants to mitigate flooding, there are important questions about the culture of nuclear regulation that some say need to be addressed.

Reilly thinks the NRC should take a more active role, either itself or through an independent third party, in auditing plants and formulating their upgrade plans instead of the plants doing those tasks themselves, as is currently the practice.

Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists discounted the utility of deploying independent third parties, saying that the NRC itself should be held accountable for regulating plant safety. One way to do that would be for Congress to hold the agency to safety deadlines in the same way that it now holds the agency accountable for meeting deadlines regarding “business items,” such as plant-owner requests to extend the period for which a reactor is licensed, and to increase the amount of power the reactor is permitted to generate. Currently, Lochbaum said, the agency allocates far fewer staff and resources to its safety work than to those business items, and rarely sets safety deadlines that it keeps.

 

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