The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's rules are a patchwork that needs to be reorganized and integrated into a new structure to improve safety, the agency's staff told the five members of the commission on Tuesday at a meeting.
The session was called to consider reforms after a tsunami caused the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. But how speedily the commission will take up the recommendations is not clear.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, the nuclear industry agreed to bring in assorted extra equipment, including batteries and generators, to cope with circumstances beyond what the plants were designed for. Such preparations are among the reasons that the commission has suggested that American reactors are better protected than Fukushima was. But back then, because their focus was on a potential terrorist attack, much of that equipment was located in spots that were not protected against floods, staff officials said.
"The insight that we drew from that is that if you make these decisions in a more holistic way, and you are more cognizant of what kinds of protections you are trying to foster, perhaps you can do them in a more useful way,'' Gary Holahan, a member of the staff task force that reported to the commission, said on Tuesday.
Another likely area of restructuring is to review the distinction that the commission makes between "design basis" and "beyond design basis" accidents. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the commission and a predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, issued construction permits for the 104 commercial reactors now running, they established requirements for hardware and training based on the safety factors arising from the characteristics of each site, including its vulnerability to flood or earthquake. Those are known as design-basis accidents.
A variety of additional requirements involving potential problems that would be more severe but less likely (beyond design-basis accidents) have been added over the years.
Yet much more is known today about quake vulnerability, the potential for flooding and other safety factors than when many plants were designed. As a result, according to the task force's report, sometimes two adjacent reactors that were designed at different times will apply different assumptions about the biggest natural hazard they face.
One of the study's recommendations is that the reactors be periodically re-evaluated for hazards like floods and earthquakes.
There are a dozen recommendations in all. The commission's chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, said the five commissioners should decide within 90 days(the same period it took to develop the recommendations) whether to accept or reject them, although actually acting on them would take far longer.
He put forth the 90-day goal as a challenge to his four fellow commissioners, unusual for the chairman of a multi-member commission.
Commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki said, "This should be our highest priority, to get this work done." But she also described the task force's report as just a first step.
No votes were taken at the meeting, but the commissioners might eventually vote to refer the recommendations to its staff for further study. The report was developed by a team of six staff members but was not reviewed by the rest of the staff.
The nuclear industry has already declared that some of the changes recommended should have to go through the standard rule-making procedure, which can take years.
The task force report, while calling for action, also made a point of stating that continued operation of existing reactors and activities like renewing old licenses and granting licenses for new construction pose no imminent safety threat. The commission hopes to issue two new licenses this fall, for the first time in decades.
And Commissioner William C. Ostendorff said, "I personally do not believe that our existing regulatory framework is broken."
Members of Congress are beginning to line up on each side of the question about whether the lessons of Fukushima require quick action. Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and a longtime critic of nuclear safety regulation, said in a statement on Tuesday that "all too often, a majority of the N.R.C.'s commissioners seem to be operating under the impression that N.R.C. really stands for 'no regulations contemplated.'"
"I call on those commissioners to do their jobs and act immediately to implement all measure recommended by the Fukushima task force,'' he said.
But the leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in astatement on Monday that they were "concerned that regular N.R.C. procedures for full and deliberate review may be circumvented, depriving the commission of the full information necessary to properly do its work.''
The task force was only a "small team," they noted in a letter.