At a 19 July 2011 public meeting, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC or Commission) was briefed by the agency's Near-Term Task Force that is reviewing the implications of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan. The briefing provided insights into the likely direction of NRC actions for U.S. nuclear power plants. Significantly, the Commissioners emphasized the importance of receiving stakeholder input as a key next step before the Commission could fully evaluate the six-member Task Force's findings and recommendations. Commissioner Svinicki called the report an "important but early step" in her opening remarks, that must be "open to challenge by wider groups before Commission consideration." Thus, reactor licensees and other stakeholders should be prepared to take an active role in providing input on these important issues.

Task Force report

The Task Force report, titled Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century: The Near Term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Accident, was released on 12 July 2011. Based on the Task Force's review of the events at Fukushima, the report makes 12 overarching recommendations to the Commission:

  • Establish a regulatory framework that more explicitly encompasses beyond-design-basis events.
  • Require licensees to reevaluate and upgrade as necessary the design-basis seismic and flooding protection of structures, systems, and components.
  • As part of the longer-term review, evaluate enhancements to the capability to prevent or mitigate seismically induced fires and floods.
  • Strengthen station blackout (SBO) mitigation capability at all operating and new reactors for design-basis and beyond-design-basis external events, in particular to address prolonged SBO events.
  • Require reliable hardened vents for BWR Mark I and Mark II reactors, which could include modifications for those plants that have already installed hardened vents.
  • Identify insights about hydrogen control and mitigation.
  • Enhance spent fuel pool makeup capability and instrumentation.
  • Strengthen and integrate onsite emergency response capabilities such as the Emergency Operating Procedures and Severe Accident Management Guidelines.
  • Require facility emergency plans to address prolonged SBO and multiunit events.
  • Pursue longer-term emergency planning (EP) topics related to multiunit events and prolonged SBO.
  • Pursue EP topics related to decision-making, radiation monitoring, and public education.
  • Focus more on defense-in-depth requirements in the NRC's Reactor Oversight Process (ROP).

During the meeting, Task Force Chairman Dr. Charles Miller emphasized that the Fukushima accident was the result of an "external event [magnitude 9.0 earthquake followed by tsunami that exceeded 45 feet in height] of a magnitude that caused a common-cause failure of onsite and off-site power" for a prolonged period of time. While such a beyond-design-basis scenario is not considered likely at a U.S. nuclear plant, many of the Task Force recommendations focus on defense-in-depth to provide assurance that U.S. plants are protected from and can cope with severe flooding and prolonged SBO events. For example, as the Task Force explained during the meeting, equipment installed under 10 CFR 50.54(hh) to meet post-September 11th security requirements may be useful in mitigating severe natural events, but may not be available if it is not protected from flooding or does not have reliable AC power.

Commissioner views on the Task Force report

During the 19 July briefing, the Commissioners explained that they will be studying the Task Force recommendations. Some Commissioners expressed concern with the Task Force's implication that there needs to be a "substantive pivot" on the NRC's "regulatory framework" (Recommendation 1) and that the risk-informed ROP needs improvement.

Among other things, the Task Force concluded that the existing "patchwork of regulatory requirements" developed "piece-by-piece over the decades" should be replaced with a "logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework" to encompass more explicitly beyond-design-basis events, termed "extended design-basis requirements." Several Commissioners pushed back on these statements with Commissioner Ostendorff beginning his opening statement by stating that he does not believe that the existing regulatory framework is broken, and Commissioner Svinicki pointing out that all regulatory agencies have "patchwork" regulations as they evolve to address new issues and new information over time. Among other things, Commissioner Svinicki honed in on an apparent inconsistency in the Task Force affirming that existing plants are safe and a Fukushima-like event is highly unlikely, before calling for what she characterized as a "huge change to the regulatory framework." She asked the Task Force to clarify the need for such a significant regulatory shift. 

Commissioner Svinicki also asked the Task Force to clarify its conclusion that "[t]he ROP's reliance on risk undervalues the safety benefit of defense-in-depth," which Commissioner Svinicki said appears to go against the Commission's decades long movement towards risk-informed regulation. The Task Force provided some helpful clarification that it was only advocating a small change to the ROP, whereby the NRC would look into more defense-in-depth issues during annual assessments of plants. 

From the briefing, it appears that a key underlying issue for the Commission will be the application of the NRC's backfitting rule to any new requirements. The Task Force indicates that most of its recommendations can be implemented by the Commission as necessary to ensure "adequate protection" – the minimum level of safety – and thus would not need to be evaluated as safety enhancement backfits under the cost-benefit standards of 10 CFR 50.109. During the meeting, the Task Force acknowledged that the NRC has little guidance on what constitutes "adequate protection." The appropriate application of the backfit rule is thus likely to be a significant issue going forward. This issue could be particularly important as the Task Force recommendations call for the NRC to issue legally-binding orders to require licensees to implement many of the interim actions.

Another key issue will be the implementation of recommendations for new reactors – both for new designs in the design certification process or new combined license (COL) applicants. For example, the Task Force recommends that certain COL applicants and design certifications be subject to Recommendations 4 (prolonged SBO) and 7 (new safety-related AC power capability and instrumentation for spent fuel pools) prior to licensing or certification. The application of the Task Force recommendations to plants currently in the licensing process will be a significant policy issue for the Commission. 

Opportunity for stakeholder input

The NRC Staff has scheduled a public meeting on 28 July 2011 to discuss the results of the Near-Term Task Force's evaluation. Participants from the NRC will include representatives from the Office of the Executive Director for Operations and members of the Task Force. During the meeting, the public will have an opportunity to provide comments and ask questions about the report.

The NRC also indicated that it will continue to seek stakeholder input – both from within the NRC, outside the NRC, and with federal, state, and local partners – on these issues in the coming months. Affected licensees should make sure to take advantage of opportunities for clarification and input to ensure their views are taken into account as the Commission proceeds with its review of the near-term recommendations and longer-term evaluation of the Fukushima accident.

Additionally, non-reactor licensees should continue to monitor these developments as the NRC indicated that it will also be reviewing the implications of Fukushima for non-power reactors and materials licensees.