Advocates are concerned that Oyster Creek Generating Station may find a way around the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) first orders post Fukushima as the plant won’t have to comply until 2016, two years before its operating license expires.
“They agreed to an early shutdown,” said, Gregory Auriemma, local attorney and president of the Ocean County chapter of the Sierra Club. “But the question is, will (upgrades) be cost effective?”
On March 12, the NRC issued three immediately effective orders for power reactors licensees, including Oyster Creek, to do the following:
- Develop strategies to protect equipment and ensure backup power;
- Enhance spent fuel pool instrumentation to determine water level;
- Install reliable hardened vents (for operating Boiling Water Reactors with Mark I and Mark II containment designs).
The NRC cites “public health” as the primary reason for the new orders.
“The NRC believes that continued operation under existing regulations does not pose an imminent threat to public health and safety but that the events at Fukushima highlighted the need for these additional capabilities to mitigate the effects of beyond-design-basis external events,” the NRC said in the policy issue.
The NRC will prepare guidance for implementation by August and nuclear plants will be required to submit an integrated plan to the commission by Feb. 28, 2013. Plants will be required to comply with the NRC’s orders within two refueling outages after its plan was submitted or by Dec. 31, 2016.
This concerns Auriemma and Janet Tauro, co-chair of Grandmothers, Mothers and More for Energy Safety (GRAMMES)
Tauro commends the NRC for recognizing that changes need to be made but “they’re gambling with peoples lives,” she said.
“Moving forward with this is positive but I’m horrendously disappointed in the timeline,” Tauro said. “They’re given until 2016. That is much too long. This order should’ve been written for compliance immediately.”
Tauro recently had a conversation with the new branch manager for the NRC at Oyster Creek, who told her the upgrades would be “very expensive,” she said.
It won’t be cost effective for them to implement these changes two years before closure, Auriemma said.
When the time comes to comply with these orders, Oyster Creek may avoid implementation through litigation, Auriemma said. The NRC wouldn't require compliance until a decision is made in court and the duration of the lawsuit would most likely take Exelon Corporation, the owner and operator of the plant, to shut down.
But NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said that the NRC could take enforcement actions against any plant that fails to comply with its orders. Enforcement actions could include fines, orders specific to the plant or Confirmatory Action Letters.
“When it comes to Exelon and Oyster Creek, the bottom line is that it’s always about money and not public safety,” Tauro said.
Oyster Creek spokesperson Suzanne D’Ambrosio could not confirm any costs associated with the upgrades but said Exelon will comply.
“We’ll review the order and do what we need to do,” she said. “In a general sense, we’re confident in the ultimate safety of Oyster Creek and all of Exelon’s nuclear facilities.
“Continuous improvement is paramount,” she added. “There’s a strong and solid commitment to address the lessons learned and to make improvements that we as a company and an industry see fit. It’s the responsible thing to do."
Below is a breakdown of each of the orders:
Plants will be required to develop strategies to mitigate the effects of natural disasters by protecting equipment, the NRC’s policy said.
The NRC will require plants to address external events that may result in the simultaneous loss of alternating current (ac) power and the loss of normal access to the ultimate head sink, he said. Current systems will have to be supplemented.
“They absolutely need backup power,” Tauro said. “We would very much like to see them enclose generators in concrete at different locations.”
Currently, Oyster Creek has two generators in the same location, she said.
The strategies will have to be implemented at multiple units on site and will add multiple ways to maintain or restore core cooling, containment and spent fuel pool cooling capabilities, the NRC said.
Responders at Fukushima did not have the proper tools to determine the water level in the spent fuel pool, the NRC said. Plans will be required to enhance reliable spent fuel instrumentation.
“Fukushima demonstrated that confusion and misapplication of resources may result from beyond-design-basis external events when adequate instrumentation is not available,” the NRC said.
Instrumentation currently installed at U.S. plants, including Oyster Cree, typically monitor normal or slightly off-normal conditions in the spent fuel pool, the NRC said. Enhancing the instrumentation will provide emergency responders with reliable information in the case of an external event.
“Reliable and available indication is essential to ensure that plant personnel can effectively prioritize emergency actions,” the NRC said.
The lack of reliable instrumentation is “beyond fathomable,” Tauro said. “This is just not being implemented quickly enough.”
Plants will be required to install reliable hardened vents, an issue that many advocates like Tauro, have been pushing for.
“The NRC has come to realize that the hardened vents wouldn’t operate if there is an extreme radioactive release of steam or a meltdown like at Fukushima,” she said. “They will not work.”
During Fukushima, operators were unable to successfully operate the containment system. As a result, operators were unable to reduce containment pressure, which ultimately inhibited efforts to cool the reactor core.
“At Fukushima, limitations in time and the unpredictable conditions associated with the accident significantly challenged the attempts by responders to preclude core damage and containment failure,” the NRC said.
Reliable hardened vents are important to maintaining core and containment cooling, the NRC said. The availability of additional backup or alternate sources of power to operate the venting system in addition to accessibility to certain valves could help to depressurize containment.
“This is just vents,” Tauro said. “Oyster Creek has a lot more problems than just vents.”
Edith Gbur of Jersey Shore Nuclear Watch also sees the order as “just vents.”
“These are just band aids, actually,” she said. “Basically the plant is built so it will not be able to tolerate any kind of nuclear accidents. These are little things. It’s not going to make any difference in the basic structure of nuclear power plants. The fact remains that with all of these adjustments, nuclear power is still unsafe.”
Requests for Information
The NRC also requested that plants submit a written response and do the following:
- Re-evaluate seismic and flooding hazards using the latest information, guidance, and methodologies.
- Perform seismic and flooding walk downs to identify and address degraded, nonconforming, or unanalyzed conditions.
- Assess communication systems and equipment under conditions of onsite and offsite damage and prolonged station blackout (SBO).
- Perform a staffing study to determine the number and qualifications of staff required to respond to a multi-unit event.
After evaluating the response, the NRC will take additional regulatory action, if necessary, they said.