Thursday, October 06, 2011

NRC’s Post-Fukushima Review Adds Top Priority

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week released a staff paper that prioritizes the recommendations from the near-term post-Fukushima task force report into three tiers—or categories—of importance based on the potential to enhance safety at U.S. nuclear plants. As part of its Tier 1 recommendation, or actions that “should be started without unnecessary delay,” the NRC elevated the importance of implementing spent fuel pool instrumentation, or monitoring equipment, at U.S. nuclear energy facilities.

Why did the NRC elevate this issue? A Bloomberg article explains:

Improved cooling-pool equipment wasn’t listed as a concern warranting immediate NRC action in a Sept. 9 staff memo. Agency staff made it a priority after determining that resources exist to improve monitoring instruments, which aren’t often designed “to remain functional under accident conditions,” according to the report released today.

Moving the recommendation to the first tier does NOT indicate that current spent fuel pools are unsafe. In fact, the NRC has said that current operating nuclear plants “do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety.” The re-prioritization of the issue likely comes from early lessons the NRC and industry have learned post-Fukushima on the need for remote monitoring of the pools.

In a September 26 letter to the NRC, which provides the industry’s position on the commission’s post-Fukushima recommendations, the industry shows how important it is for the NRC to act based on the facts from the accident.

The Fukushima spent fuel pools are an example of where facts have invalidated earlier conclusions. Shortly following the initial events, many believed that water levels in the pools—the Unit 4 pool, in particular—had fallen to the point that the spent fuel had overheated, failed and contributed to the accident. Now, with the benefit of visual inspections and samples from the four affected fuel pools, it is evident that the spent fuel rods did not experience major and significant failure.

The industry continues by saying that not having a clear understanding of the situation in a used fuel pool “could result in the diversion of needed resources away from more safety-significant activities.”

In learning this important lesson from Fukushima, the industry believes that:

Remote monitoring would enable operators to know when actions are needed to provide additional water to the pools. This recommendation is consistent with the action already taken by the industry on knowing the time until the pool will reach 200°F.

The industry fully supports the NRC’s decision to add the issue as a tier 1 priority in its near-term actions.

See NEI’s video to learn more about how spent fuel pools are designed and constructed to safely store used nuclear fuel.

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