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Nuclear task force: No immediate changes needed in U.S.

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
A federal task force says U.S. reactors don't have significant safety issues. Shown in Virginia's North Anna Power Station.
A federal task force says U.S. reactors don't have significant safety issues. Shown in Virginia's North Anna Power Station.
  • Task force does not recommend immediate changes
  • But changes are expected when its study is completed
  • Watchdog group does not see that "the picture is quite as rosy"

Washington (CNN) -- A federal task force set up following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan says no immediate changes are needed to improve the safety of nuclear reactors in the United States. But it said it expects to recommend changes when it completes its study in 60 days.

"As we stand today, the task force has not identified any issues that we think would undermine our confidence in the continued safety and emergency planning for nuclear plants in this country," task force leader Charles Miller told the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday. "That said, we do expect that we're likely to have findings and recommendations that will further enhance the safety of the nuclear plants in this country."

But an industry watchdog group said the NRC task force is "pulling its punches" by failing to take immediate actions to address shortcomings.

"I think if you're listening carefully, they're telling two different stories," said Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "On the one hand, they say we don't need to take any immediate action. On the other hand, their inspections have turned up problems with compliance on the measures that are supposed to be in place to deal with severe accidents. It doesn't sound like the picture is quite as rosy."

The NRC set up the internal task force shortly following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan to provide a quick review of the incident and report on lessons that could be applied domestically. The task force will also brief the NRC in June and July, and its recommendations will set the stage for more in-depth studies.

An NRC official, meanwhile, told the commission that post-Fukushima safety inspections of U.S. nuclear plants found some lapses.

"None of the observations poses a significant safety issue," Martin Virgilio testified. "But there were observations that equipment that was relied on would not start, that it had not been maintained. There were some places where the capability to deal with large fires and explosions ... there were discrepancies in terms of the procedures, the equipment and the training."

The problems have been addressed, he said.

At Thursday's briefing, the task force listed a number of areas it is exploring and gave hints where it believes change may be necessary. Among them:

• Scenarios involving multiple reactors or spent fuel pools: Disaster plans in the U.S. typically envision problems at one reactor or storage facility. But the Fukushima disaster showed the complications of dealing with multiple, simultaneous disasters, the task force said. "If you're dealing with a multi-unit event at the same time, you have considerations with regard to adequate staffing, how to triage, who makes decisions on how to triage and how you go about proceeding with what you need to do first," Miller said.

• Examining lengthy blackouts: The Fukushima event is challenging notions that power blackouts can quickly be resolved. And the NRC needs to look at contingencies where infrastructure damage prevents quick repairs to damaged nuclear sites.

• Severe accident management guidelines: The industry implemented the guidelines, known as SAMGs, as a voluntary initiative in the 1990s. "Consequently, we do not evaluate them as part of the agency's routine reactor oversight process," Miller said. He said the task force noticed during its examination that the guidelines apply to the reactor core and containment buildings but do not cover spent fuel pools.

• Radioactive contamination: Miller said the task force is exploring the industry's ability to have real-time radiation measurements during accidents, both on site and off site.

• Potassium iodide: "If you look at the days following Fukushima, even in the United States, there were various levels of information being given out about the prophylactic used of KI (potassium iodide's formula), not all of which was prudent. And I think we need to take a look at whether further education in that regard is necessary."