Top nuke regulator eyes two-part safety review, won’t rule out licensing changes

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said Sunday the upcoming study of U.S. reactor safety will unfold in two phases to allow a near-term review while awaiting detailed information that will emerge from the crisis in Japan.

The five-member commission is meeting Monday to receive updates on the status of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi complex and begin mapping out the U.S. safety review, which President Obama ordered last week.

“We will probably do some kind of short look in the near-term just to re-examine the existing fleet of reactors, and then probably a much longer look based on the accurate information we get eventually from Japan about what really happened and what is most important going forward,” Jaczko said in an interview on C-SPAN.

He said once the crisis is resolved, it will likely be months before vital information about what unfolded is available, and that it’s important for U.S. regulators to examine the catastrophe in a systematic and methodical way.

“We want to get this right — we don’t want to take early information and use that and go off in  completely wrong direction,” he said, but later added: “We intend to do a short-term look that will be done in a much shorter time-frame, just to take the available information we have and really look at our regulatory system and our plants and make sure there aren’t any immediate actions we need to take.”

Jaczko, echoing comments by other top U.S. officials, again sought to provide reassurances about the safety systems of the 104 U.S. power reactors, noting, for instance, requirements to have redundant system to ensure a loss of power will not cripple the ability ensure cooling in spent fuel pools.

“We think we have a program in place that would deal with the kinds of situations that we are seeing in Japan, but I want to stress that what they are dealing with in Japan is a very, very difficult situation and that there will be plenty of opportunity when this crisis is resolved to really figure out what happened and how we can all learn from it,” he said.

The Japanese crisis comes as several power companies are seeking NRC approval to build the first new U.S. reactors in decades.

Jaczko would not rule out the possibility that the lessons learned from the crisis could affect the NRC’s reviews of those applications, or the reactor designs they intend to use.

“We certainly want to get good information and if that good information tells us that we need to make changes to our licensing process, then we will do that,” he said.

The NRC is expected to make decisions as soon as late summer or early fall on the designs. “I think we will have some information, if not all the information, out of the Japanese event by then to inform any decisions we need to make about those designs,” Jaczko.

The NRC is reviewing applications for design certifications, including an amendment to the design of the Westinghouse AP1000. It’s the reactor model that several power companies seeking to build new nuclear plants intend to use, including Southern Company, which is planning to add two new reactors to its Plant Vogtle in Georgia.

Jaczko declined to say whether the catastrophe could affect the pace of new plant construction license approvals, but noted new strains in the NRC stemming from the need to respond to the Japanese crisis and review its implications.

“I anticipate this is going to be a very significant workload for the agency, and as we begin to lay out our plan we are going to take a look at how we are going to deal with that workload,” Jaczko said.

“If we need additional resources to do it, then we will have to ask Congress for that additional support,” he added.