Markey to NRC: Vogtle Reactor Vote is an Abdication of Duty
Blasts latest 4-1 vote to stall implementation of post-Fukushima upgrades even for new nuclear reactors
WASHINGTON D.C. – Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) released the following statement after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) today approved the license for the construction and operation of two new nuclear reactors at Southern Nuclear Operating Company’s Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia. Over-riding NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko, the 4-1 vote fails to make implementation of the safety upgrades recommended by the NRC’s expert Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima a mandatory condition of the operating licenses for the reactors. The Vogtle reactors will utilize the Westinghouse AP1000 design, which was also recently approved by the NRC. One of NRC’s longest-serving staff warned in December 2010 in a formal submission to the NRC that the reactor’s containment structure could “shatter like a glass cup” due to flaws in the design of the shield building if impacted by an earthquake or commercial aircraft.
“Today, the NRC abdicated its duty to protect public health and safety, just to make construction faster and cheaper for the nuclear industry,” said Rep. Markey, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “While four NRC Commissioners continue to slow-walk the implementation of the Fukushima safety upgrades, today they have fast-tracked the construction of two nuclear reactors whose shield building could ‘shatter like a glass cup’ if impacted by an earthquake or other natural or man-made impact. Rather than ushering in the so-called nuclear renaissance, today’s vote demonstrates that the NRC is still stuck in the nuclear safety Dark Ages.”
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the NRC determined that some nuclear security upgrades were required to be implemented for the “adequate protection” of all U.S. nuclear reactors. This meant that nuclear reactors would not be considered to be sufficiently secure without these new measures, and that an additional cost-benefit “backfit” analysis would not be required to justify their implementation. The “adequate protection” concept is derived from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, and is reflected in NRC’s “Backfit Rule” which specifies that new regulations for existing nuclear reactors are not required to include this extra cost-benefit “backfit” analysis when the new regulations are “necessary to ensure that the facility provides adequate protection to the health and safety of the public.”
Both the NRC Fukushima Task Force and the NRC staff who reviewed the Task Force report concluded that the new post-Fukushima safety recommendations were also necessary for the “adequate protection” of existing U.S. nuclear power plants, and that the additional cost-benefit analysis should not be required to justify their implementation. Chairman Jaczko has announced his support for all the recommendations made by the Task Force.
According to a presentation by NRC staff, the purpose of the backfit rule is “don’t change the rules after the game has started,” an apparent reference to nuclear reactors that have already been built and which might have to make potentially costly modifications in order to comply with a new regulatory requirement. However, this concern ought not apply to any new nuclear reactor that has yet to be built. In today’s vote, four NRC Commissioners refused to add the post-Fukushima safety upgrades as a licensing condition for the Vogtle nuclear reactors, choosing once again to ignore their own technical experts’ recommendation to make these upgrades mandatory.
“With today’s vote to exempt even new reactors from having to implement the post-Fukushima safety upgrades, these four Commissioners have yet again demonstrated a cavalier disregard for the NRC’s public safety mission,” said Rep. Markey. “They’ve also added to their long list of votes to undercut, weaken or reject strong nuclear safety requirements.”
The December Markey report entitled “Regulatory Meltdown” found that on November 7, 2011, Commissioner William Magwood’s chief of staff emailed the Commissioner recommending that he add an item to his as-yet unpublished vote on an upcoming NRC decision on how to implement some of the post-Fukushima Task Force recommendations. The item was also reportedly included in Commissioner William Ostendorff’s unpublished vote, and would disapprove the NRC staff’s recommendation to require the safety upgrades to be implemented as retrofits to existing reactors in order to ensure the “adequate protection” of these facilities. If such an item was approved, it could mean that these safety upgrades might not have to be undertaken at all because the industry could argue as part of that future analysis that the requirements are too expensive.
On December 15, 2011, NRC released its votes on some of the post-Fukushima safety upgrades. Commissioners Magwood and Ostendorff’s views evidently prevailed, because a majority of the Commission concluded that making a decision on whether the Fukushima Task Force recommendations should be mandatory and necessary for the adequate protection of nuclear reactors was “premature”.
The Commissioners currently serving at the NRC regrettably have a history of voting against the safety recommendations put forward by technical experts, including its own advisory committees. Some of these votes have occurred since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. An partial summary of these votes can be found HERE.
Just days before the earthquake in Japan, Rep. Markey wrote a letter to the NRC urging the Commission not to approve the Westinghouse AP1000 design until serious safety concerns were addressed. One of NRC’s longest-serving staff, Dr. John Ma, had warned in NRC documents that the reactor’s containment could shatter “like a glass cup” due to flaws in the design of the shield building if impacted by an earthquake or commercial aircraft. The shield building has the critical safety function of preventing damage to the reactor that could cause fuel meltdowns and radiation releases.
Rep. Markey has also introduced legislation to overhaul nuclear safety. The Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act will impose a moratorium on all new nuclear reactor licenses or license extensions until new safety requirements are in place that reflect the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster.