Even as engineers struggle with a power outage at the damaged Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that has left nuclear fuel storage pools without fresh cooling water, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission today released the results of their vote to delay requirements to install systems to filter radiation from vents used to release high-pressure hydrogen gas in the event of an accident. The failure of such vents during the Fukushima meltdowns led to the damaging hydrogen explosions that occurred.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Congress' leading voice on nuclear safety, today said that this vote by the NRC to reject its own staff's recommendations to install these systems would mean the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass. and Vermont Yankee, among other plants around the country, may never be required to install this key safety improvement.
"The NRC has abdicated its responsibility to ensure public health and safety in New England and across the country," said Rep. Markey. "Instead of following its top experts' safety recommendations, it chose to grant the nuclear power industry's requests for more studies and more delays, and even after the study is completed there is still no guarantee that the NRC will ever make this commonsense requirement mandatory."
As the leading Congressional voice for nuclear safety, Rep. Markey has long led the calls for the NRC to endorse its own technical staff's efforts and quickly adopt all of the recommendations made by the expert Near Term Task Force on Fukushima. He also recently sent two letters to the NRC urging the adoption of the requirement to install filtered venting systems that would work in a severe nuclear accident. While today's vote does require that the vents actually work under severe accident conditions, the requirement to filter the high levels of radiation they would release if they were ever used was rejected.
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.
Four of the commissioners currently serving at the NRC regrettably have a history of voting against the safety recommendations put forward by technical experts, including their own advisory committees. Some of these votes have occurred since the Fukushima meltdowns.
In March 2011, Rep. Markey introduced H.R. 1242, the Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act of 2011. The legislation calls for the NRC to 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. Rep. Markey's bill also calls for a moratorium on nuclear power plant licenses, license extensions, and new nuclear reactor designs until an overhaul of nuclear safety to address the inadequacies exposed by the Fukushima meltdowns is completed.