US nuclear regulators and industry officials must do more to protect
reactors from extreme, but unlikely, events like the earthquake and tsunami
that caused the accident at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, the National
Academy of Sciences recommended in report issued Thursday.
In its report on the causes and lessons from the Fukushima nuclear
accident, NAS also urged regulators and industry to incorporate "modern risk
concepts" to increase reactor safety in the US.
In addition, the study concluded that Fukushima plant operator Tokyo
Electric Power Co. and Japan's nuclear regulator at the time failed to heed
mounting evidence that the plant was not properly protected from flooding.
The report raised questions about the approach to nuclear safety used in
the US and other countries, which relies on studies of the most likely
accident scenarios for a site, the so-called "design-basis accident," and
holds plant operators accountable for being able to withstand them. Less
likely events are considered "beyond design-basis" and are regulated
That approach may not consider accident varieties widely enough, said
John Garrick, a nuclear engineer and consultant who was vice-chairman of the
committee that undertook the study. "There's some new evidence now that some
of these events are not as rare as perhaps we thought," he said on a
conference call with reporters.
Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to examine the causes of
the March 2011 accident in Japan and report on any potential lessons for US
plants. The report was completed under a contract with the US Nuclear
Regulatory Commission. A committee of 21 specialists held 39 meetings over two
years to gather information for the report and recommendations.
The report did not make specific policy proposals, limiting
recommendations to technical areas.
POTENTIAL FOR LOSS OF SAFETY FUNCTIONS A KEY AREA
An earthquake on March 11, 2011, caused a large tsunami that killed
thousands and disabled key safety systems at the Fukushima I and II stations.
Three reactors at Fukushima I suffered what the report said was "severe core
damage," releasing radionuclides and causing a series of hydrogen explosions.
Nuclear plant operators and regulators should "actively seek out and act on
new information about hazards" that could threaten nuclear plants, the report
NRC and the nuclear industry should do more to assess the risks from
events that could lead to a loss of safety functions at plants, the report
While NAS said nuclear plant operators and regulators in the US and
elsewhere are "taking useful actions" to upgrade systems, procedures and
training at reactors, it recommended that US regulators focus on protecting
power for instrumentation and control systems that would allow operators to
better monitor conditions in reactors and spent nuclear fuel pools.
The NRC and US industry should improve the ability to identify and manage
risks from "low frequency, high magnitude" events, such as occurred at
Fukushima, the report said. That includes preparing workers to take "ad hoc"
actions for the most severe external events, the report said.
NRC and the US nuclear industry should focus on low probability events
that could affect large geographic regions and multiple nuclear plants, the
report said, citing earthquakes, widespread floods and geomagnetic
Further, the agency and industry should use "modern risk assessment
principles" instead of NRC's traditional "deterministic" regulatory approaches
in regulating nuclear power safety, the report said. NRC has started to
incorporate the use of computer-based risk modeling into its regulations, but
should increase its use, the report said.
NRC REVIEWING REPORT, SEES 'MANY AREAS OF AGREEMENT'
NRC is reviewing the report and agency staff will report to commissioners
"in the near future," spokesman Scott Burnell said Thursday. "An initial
review of the report shows many areas of agreement between lessons identified
by the Academy and those identified by the NRC," he said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents nuclear companies, said
the NAS report "affirms the culture of safety adhered to by the US nuclear
industry." The report validates steps the nuclear industry has taken and NRC
has required in the wake of Fukushima, NEI said in a statement.
Those measures include adding portable equipment to provide backup
cooling water and power to handle extreme external events, and re-assessments
of the vulnerability of US plants to earthquakes and flooding. The report said
such measures were important steps, but said it was too soon to evaluate their
The report concluded that workers at the Fukushima plant "responded with
courage and resilience" and likely reduced the severity and consequences of
But several factors prevented workers from being able to do more, the
Tepco and the nuclear regulator, then the country's Nuclear and
Industrial Safety Agency, failed to protect critical safety equipment from
flooding "in spite of mounting evidence that the plant's current design basis
for tsunamis was inadequate," the report said.
The tsunami waves disabled power distribution equipment and the lack of
main and backup power kept plant workers from providing cooling water to
reactors, taking other safety measures and communicating effectively, the
report said. In addition, there were not adequate procedures and training for
dealing with an extended loss of all power, the report said.
Because there were six units at the Fukushima I plant, workers at
different units competed for resources and the attention and help of the
on-site emergency response center, which coordinated accident mitigation
efforts, the report said.
The accident revealed vulnerabilities in Japan's emergency management
planning, the report said and recommended that agencies with responsibilities
for emergency management in the US assess their plans for dealing with a
nuclear accident, especially a "regional-scale disaster."
Congress also requested that NAS study the safety and security of spent
nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste. That topic will be the subject of a
future study that is likely to be released in 2015, Committee Chairman Norman
--William Freebairn, firstname.lastname@example.org
--Edited by Lisa Miller, email@example.com