Nuclear regulators under fire for delay of post-Fukushima safety requirement

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is facing blowback for its decision to delay a key but expensive safety rule proposed in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown.

The five-member commission voted this week to postpone consideration of regulations requiring new vent filter systems on 31 U.S. nuclear reactors that are similar in design to the Japanese power plant where the accident took place.

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The NRC instead voted to give its staff a year to produce a “technical evaluation,” while also gathering additional public input on the proposal. The commission directed its staff to weigh the vents against “a more performance-based approach using existing systems to achieve a similar reduction in radioactive release during an accident.”

The vents, designed to reduce radioactive releases during an emergency, were among a list of measures proposed by the commission’s staff following Fukushima. The commission said a final decision would be incorporated into a rule to be finalized by March 2017.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, did not approve of the decision.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should never cut corners when it comes to safety, especially after Fukushima," Boxer said. “We should accept the recommendations of safety experts and not just accept a partial fix.”

Congressional Republicans and industry groups, including the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), oppose the measure, saying it is unnecessary. NEI has proposed taking a case-by-case approach to determine whether the filters should be required.

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The industry has said venting systems could cost as much as $45 million apiece to implement.

Proponents, meanwhile, argue that the filters would provide a layer of safety to the nation’s reactors, and blasted the commission’s decision.

“This is fundamentally a Fukushima lesson unlearned,” said Paul Gunter, director of Reactor Oversight Project for Beyond Nuclear, a Takoma Park-based group that opposes nuclear power and weapons. “We all watched the Fukushima accident in horror as Japanese operators were unable to manage one containment failure after another.”

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