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Green Thursdays: Getting ready to react to Fukushima

February 2, 2012
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From New York Times:

Reacting to Japan’s Fukushima disaster, the nuclear industry is preparing to present regulators with a streamlined package of voluntary safety improvements that it says could be put into effect quickly — although they would not be certified as formal nuclear standards regarding specific threats.

On Friday, representatives of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s policy group, plan to meet with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to propose improvements in the industry’s “flexible mitigation capability” for a variety of hazards. Those might be earthquakes or flooding — although probably not from a tsunami, as was the case at Fukushima Daiichi in March — or some other hazard peculiar to the plant’s location, like a sandstorm.

The improvements would build on the ones instituted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the industry brought in portable generators, water pumps, hoses and batteries that could be useful in keeping water flowing to a reactor or a spent fuel pool in an emergency.

After the Fukushima accident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered the plants to inspect that gear, and some found various problems, including equipment stored in places where it would be safe from a 9/11-style aircraft attack but might be vulnerable to a flood.

In a telephone call with reporters, Adrian Heymer, the executive director of strategic programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the industry would propose twin sets of emergency equipment, to be located at opposite sides of the plant, and steps like installing new plumbing connections so that emergency pumps could introduce water into existing pipes. The industry will also suggest forming regional support centers where additional equipment would be available to serve multiple plants, he said.

The industry’s proposal is essentially an emergency tool kit for an unknown emergency. But Mr. Heymer said that adopting it would take less time than trying to predict the likelihood of an emergency. In fact, he said, all of this equipment would be for accidents that are “beyond design basis,” or outside the envelope of conditions for which a plant was designed.

A clear problem at Fukushima, he said, was that the tsunami was bigger than what the plant was designed for. If the operators had taken an approach based on specific hazards, he said, “instead of having a meter high barrier, they might have had a 10-meter high barrier,” although the actual tsunami was 14 to 15 meters high. The institute’s approach would be to take some general precautions rather than depend on the commission’s regular approach of determining probability before deciding what steps are needed.

At Fukushima, he said, the operators responded as best they could to the tsunami, but “they were really almost doing it on the fly.”

The new equipment proposed would be under a regular maintenance schedule, he said, but it would not carry the same kinds of certification as equipment designed for the plant itself, he said. That is one detail that is likely to invite scrutiny.

While some will point out that no amount of preparation can guarantee safety, Mr. Heymer is looking for a different kind of guarantee, that the industry will “get credit” with the regulators for meeting recommendations presented in a task force report last summer.

The advantage, he said, is that it could all be done relatively soon, although some of the improvements, like changes to piping, must wait until regularly scheduled refueling shutdowns.

Monica Davies

Monica Davies

Four years ago, Monica needed a new hobby, so she started this blog. Right now, she can't believe people are still reading it. If you are, she loves you for it.

She believes John Lennon's Imagine is a blueprint for a perfect world and that a house should never not have wine in it. She is currently failing at going vegan.

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