Markey, Boxer Release GAO Report: NRC Earthquake, Flooding Risk Assessment Not Adequate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) released a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) doesn’t require operating nuclear reactors to utilize the most updated method of risk analysis to assess vulnerability to earthquakes, floods or other natural disasters. The GAO report found that while the NRC has, since 1986, repeatedly endorsed and recommended the use of Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA, which is a more comprehensive risk assessment method that looks at all potential causes of an accident for any particular hazard), it has not required any currently operating reactor to actually use the technique to evaluate vulnerabilities to natural hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods.
 
The threat of natural disasters to nuclear reactor safety is not theoretical.  Eight nuclear reactors are in the seismically active West Coast, approximately 27 are near the New Madrid seismic zone in the mid-west, and 5 are in earthquake-prone South Carolina. Last summer, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake centered near Mineral, VA caused the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station to shut down after it experienced a greater seismic impact than the reactors were designed to withstand.  Last summer’s flooding in Nebraska threatened the Fort Calhoun and Cooper nuclear power plants, Hurricane Irene caused the shut-down or otherwise impacted the emergency systems of at least nine nuclear reactors in August of 2011, and tornadoes caused the shutdown of several nuclear reactors in 2011.
 
“This report is yet another indication that while the NRC races ahead to issue or extend licenses for nuclear power plants, it has fallen behind inexcusably in addressing the safety of these very same facilities,” said Rep. Markey, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “We know what happened at Fukushima could happen here in the U.S., and we should utilize the best and latest information available to assess vulnerabilities so we can ensure the safety of our operating nuclear reactors.”
 
“There is simply no excuse for the NRC’s failure to require the most up to date methods to assess the threat posed by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, to our nuclear power plants,” said Senator Boxer, Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “While the NRC has agreed to study the issue, action is needed now to ensure that standards are in place that best protect the health and safety of the American public.”
 
A copy of the GAO report entitled “NRC Natural Hazard Assessments Could Be More Risk-Informed” can be found HERE.
 
Additionally findings from the GAO report include:
·         More than half of the independent risk assessment and natural hazards experts contacted by GAO said that NRC should expand use of the PRA technique to require an assessment of the risks of natural hazards.
·         While some NRC licensees currently voluntarily use the technique to assess their facilities’ vulnerabilities to a range of accident scenarios, including in some cases accidents that could be caused by natural hazards, many have not updated this analysis for years.
o   For example, GAO found that while the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant has used PRA to assess its seismic vulnerabilities, it has not updated this analysis since 1988. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has not updated its seismic PRA analysis since 1995.  The Kewaunee Power Station and the Point Beach Nuclear Plant, both in Wisconsin, have not updated their seismic PRA analysis since 1994 and 1995 respectively, and the Seabrook Station in New Hampshire has not updated this analysis since 2004.
·         None of the nuclear power plants examined by GAO had ever utilized PRA to assess the risk of flooding, tornadoes or other natural hazards.
 
The GAO report was requested in March 2010 by Rep. Markey. Senator Boxer joined the request in February 2012.
 
In May of 2011, Rep. Markey released a report entitled “Fukushima Fallout” that also found that the NRC has not factored modern geologic information into seismic safety requirements for nuclear power plants, and has not incorporated its technical staff’s recommendation to do so even though the new information indicates a much higher probability of core damage caused by an earthquake than previously believed. In fact, the NRC has continued to process applications for license extensions for many nuclear reactors, including those in major metropolitan areas, even in the absence of upgraded seismic safety requirements.
 
The NRC’s Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima recommended in its July 2011 report that licensees of operating reactors be required to periodically re-assess vulnerabilities to natural hazards in order to incorporate new scientific information or other developments that could alter earlier assumptions. While the NRC has approved the recommendation to require new assessments of these risks, it has deferred a decision on whether to require periodic re-assessments of the risks, and has not required the PRA technique to be utilized.
 
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