US mulls backup-battery rule after Japan nuclear crisis

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will consider requiring that U.S. nuclear power plants have backup batteries that last longer in the event of a power outage at a reactor.

The NRC will take battery life into account as part of a broad, two-part review of the country’s 104 nuclear reactors initiated in the aftermath of the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan.

The review will also look at emergency preparedness and spent fuel pool designs, among other things.

“There’s a wide range of topics. Almost nothing is off the table,” NRC Executive Director for Operations Bill Borchardt told reporters Tuesday.

Borchardt testified at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee briefing on the disaster in Japan, in which an earthquake and resulting tsunami knocked out power to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, causing reactor cores to overheat.

It’s the first of several briefings on the issue slated for this week. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko will testify in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday and the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

Borchardt told reporters following the Senate Energy briefing that he is confident that backup batteries at U.S. nuclear reactors will work. But he said a review of U.S. nuclear safety should take into account extending battery life.

“I think the question of how long they need to operable is a very good question. That’s clearly one of the things that we’re going to be looking at,” he said.

The NRC’s station blackout rule requires operators to conduct an analysis of what would happen in the event of a power outage at a reactor, a similar scenario to what took place in Japan.

The rule does not impose regulatory requirements on operators. It instead allows operators to develop their own plan for responding to a blackout, Borchardt said.

“Different sites could come up with different approaches,” he said. “Some have installed gas turbines as a backup. Others have installed batteries that last for different time periods.”

Borchardt said the average battery at a U.S. plant lasts between four and eight hours.

A review of battery life will be part of an initial 90-day review of nuclear safety. The NRC will then determine whether to take immediate action or fold the review into a longer-term assessment that will be conducted after the U.S. gathers more information about the Japanese disaster.

Borchardt also said that U.S. nuclear relicensing will likely not be sidelined by the broad NRC review of reactors.

“The way the NRC would do our license renewal reviews, I don’t anticipate it changing,” Borchardt said.

If the NRC’s broad review necessitates design changes, those would be required across the U.S. nuclear fleet, rather than as part of the relicensing process.

“[I]f we believe there’s a design change that’s necessary that we think needs to be imposed, we’re not going to do that as part of the license renewal review,” Borchardt said. “We’ll do that based on the 104 licensed reactors right now. We won’t wait.”

More broadly, Borchardt offered an optimistic view of the crisis in Japan.

“The situation in general continues to further stabilize, although there are many hurdles that remain,” he told lawmakers at the briefing.