Gregory Jaczko’s resignation as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives the agency a fresh chance to tackle two crucial issues: nuclear-plant safety and waste disposal.
The U.S. nuclear-power industry is in turmoil, competing as it does with rock-bottom natural-gas prices. Even as most power companies wait to make new investments in nuclear, 104 existing reactors need close attention right away.
Arguably the biggest item on the NRC’s to-do list is to carry out the recommendations of a task force that looked at how to avoid Fukushima-like problems in the U.S. It took until March, a year after the Japanese disaster, for the NRC to finally issue the first three orders to improve safety and preparedness. Plant owners must now have backup equipment to keep reactors and spent-fuel pools cool if the power goes out, improved venting systems to limit damage to the core, and better tools for monitoring the amount of water used to cool spent fuel.
Other recommendations remain, including assessments of plants’ vulnerability to earthquakes, floods and other hazards. The NRC needs to also issue rules for coping with a “station blackout” -- a total loss of electric power at a nuclear plant.
Work on some of these items has begun, but the five members of the NRC have disagreed on how quickly to proceed, and many rules are not expected to be issued until the end of 2016, at the earliest.
That’s too long to wait. Many operators are already seeking or will soon request license renewals, including two California plants perched near earthquake faults. While the U.S. is not likely to experience an exact replica of Japan’s crisis, which was triggered by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and exacerbated by a tsunami, risks exist. A magnitude-5.8 earthquake in Virginia last year caused about twice as much ground shaking as the North Anna nuclear plant, about 11 miles from the epicenter, was designed to withstand. The plant shut down as intended, although on-site generators restored power. Also in 2011, a fire at an idled Nebraska nuclear plant knocked out power used to keep water circulating in a spent-fuel pool, an event the NRC preliminarily classified as “red,” which is the highest safety threat. Rising floodwaters from the Missouri River have also threatened the plant.
The other vital order of business before the NRC -- what to do with the 65,000 metric tons of radioactive waste being stored on-site at nuclear reactors -- has become as hot as uranium, with policy makers arguing over whether to store radioactive waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
A proposal to do so had been under review at the NRC since 2008 -- until the Obama administration, which has made clear its opposition, provided no funding to keep the review going in fiscal 2011. Jaczko, a physicist who previously worked as science-policy adviser for Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a staunch opponent, terminated the NRC’s license review of Yucca in 2011, citing budgetary reasons.
In the meantime, the U.S. continues to collect about $750 million per year in disposal fees from the industry (the fund now totals about $27 billion). Storing the waste on-site indefinitely is not desirable or feasible, a fact cited in a January report by a blue-ribbon commission created by the White House to address nuclear-waste disposal. The commission also rightly noted that once any disposal facilities are selected, it will take years to site, license and construct them.
Allison Macfarlane, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University and President Barack Obama’s choice to succeed Jaczko, is an expert on the subject of atomic waste who has argued that Yucca Mountain is unfit for storing it. Nevertheless she should allow the scientific review to find out for certain whether waste can be safely stored there. To hasten the process, Congress should provide funding so the review can continue.
If politics -- or geology -- won’t allow Yucca’s review to be reopened, the NRC must move quickly to find an alternate site, such the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which stores transuranic radioactive waste generated by the production of nuclear weapons. Community officials in nearby Carlsbad have expressed interest in expanding the site.
Jaczko was a combative leader who engaged in ugly, public spats with his four fellow commissioners. If Macfarlane is quickly confirmed as his replacement -- and here the U.S. Senate could help by scheduling confirmation hearings as soon as possible -- she should end the culture of bickering and get the NRC to carry out the important business of ensuring nuclear safety with speed.
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