Lawmaker has introduced legislation to overhaul nuclear safety in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan

WASHINGTON D.C. (July 12, 2011) – Today, Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and Ranking Member of the Natural Resources Committee, issued the following statement in response to the release of the 90-day findings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) task force reviewing NRC processes and regulations in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns.
“I commend the NRC task force for this near-term look at the vulnerabilities of America’s nuclear fleet in the wake of the Japanese meltdowns,” said Rep. Markey. "The task force has been thorough and thoughtful in its review, especially in light of the condensed schedule for completing its report.

“Because the task force has found that U.S. nuclear reactors are not sufficiently prepared to respond to catastrophic events or even simple power outages like the one that triggered the Fukushima meltdowns, America’s nuclear fleet remains vulnerable to a similar disaster. I urge the NRC to quickly move to order the adoption of the recommendations of this report as well as the full complement of lessons that can be learned from the Fukushima disaster before the issuance of any new nuclear power plant design or license, or approval of any relicense application.”

The NRC Task Force recommended that the NRC first take interim measures (such as issuing orders), and then implement additional regulations, to ensure that there are:

  • requirements to upgrade nuclear reactor protections for severe events (and combinations of events) such as earthquakes, tsunamis, fires or floods;
  • requirements to strengthen protections against the sort of catastrophic loss of electricity that caused the meltdowns in Japan, including a requirement for reactor cores and spent nuclear fuel to be cooled for up to 72 hours following such a blackout;
  • requirements for technologies to prevent or mitigate against the sort of hydrogen explosions that occurred in Japan;
  • requirements to strengthen the currently voluntary emergency mitigation procedures for nuclear crises; and
  • increased NRC overisght and enforcement of these regulations.      

However, the Task Force did not make specific recommendations to alter the emergency evacuation zones for nuclear power plants, distribute potassium iodide to residents living within 20 miles of a nuclear power plant in compliance with a Markey-authored law, or move spent nuclear fuel into safer dry cask storage as quickly as possible.
“The events in Japan underscore the need for our government to end its refusal to provide potassium iodide to the people that live within 20 miles of nuclear power plants,” said Rep. Markey. "We should not wait for a catastrophic accident at a nuclear reactor in this country to occur to implement this common-sense emergency preparedness measure.”
In the wake of the Japanese disaster, Rep. Markey introduced H.R. 1242, the Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act of 2011. This legislation called for many of the same measures recommended by the NRC Task Force. Specifically, it contains provisions that will:

  • Ensure that nuclear power plants and spent nuclear fuel pools can withstand and adequately respond to earthquakes, tsunamis, strong storms, long power outages, or other events that threaten a major impact.
  • Require nuclear power plants to have emergency backup plans and systems that can withstand longer electricity outages. The Fukushima meltdown was primarily caused by the loss of external electricity to the reactor containment and the spent nuclear fuel and failure of the emergency backup generators. Specifically, this means 14 days worth of diesel fuel backup generators where most reactors currently have 7 days worth, and 72 hours for battery generators where most reactors currently have battery generators that work for only 4-8 hours. The Fukushima nuclear power plant had 8-hour battery powered generators.
  • Require spent nuclear fuel to be moved into safer dry cask storage as soon as the fuel is sufficiently cooled to do so.

Since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Rep. Markey has queried the NRC for more information on the implications for America’s domestic nuclear industry:
Rep. Markey’s office recently released the report, “Fukushima Fallout: Regulator Loopholes at U.S. Nuclear Plants”, detailing several inadequacies of NRC safety regulations following the Fukushima crisis, including inadequacies related to the safety of spent fuel pools and the ability of nuclear power plants to mitigate the effects of and respond to a loss of electricity.

Rep. Markey has also criticized the NRC for its apparent failure to follow the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires analysis of the environmental impacts of potential events such as the Fukushima disaster, prior to its approval of several applications to extend the licenses of currently operating nuclear reactors. He has also urged the NRC to halt all pending approvals including for the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, and the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire, which has currently applied for another 20-year extension more than 20 years before its current license expires.

During Congressional hearings in April related to the Fukushima meltdowns, Rep. Markey announced the NRC’s technical assessment that at least one of the reactors in Japan had suffered a meltdown that caused the fuel to melt holes in the reactor vessel, and uncovered inconsistencies in NRC’s inaccurate assertions that technologies to prevent the sort of hydrogen explosions that occurred in Japan were required to be in place in the U.S.

And just days before the Japanese earthquake, Rep. Markey sent a letter to the NRC urging the resolution of safety concerns for the Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactor design, including those related to the ability of the reactor to withstand a severe impact such as an earthquake. The NRC has since identified additional problems with this design.