America’s Nuclear Plants Are Safe, NRC Says - Except When They’re Not

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March, it's a no-brainer that those in charge of nuclear power elsewhere stopped (at least for a moment) to consider whether their own plants are really safe, and whether they could withstand a natural disaster worse than anyone had imagined. In the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) launched a major assessment of how safe American plants are. 

The task force assigned to carry out this assessment won't be issuing its formal report until July, but the NRC issued a progress report today. The bottom line: well, there really isn't one yet. On the one hand, the task force declared (on an interim basis, that is), that it hasn't come up with any significant problems with safety at any of the nation's 104 existing nuclear power plants

On the other hand, the NRC has called on the companies that operate the facilities to take another look at their safety plans. The problem in Japan wasn't that the earthquake-triggered tsunami broke the reactors apart or anything quite so apocalyptic. It's that the plants lost power, and thus their cooling systems, for many days. Absent these critical systems, the reactors overheated, triggering hydrogen explosions and water leaks that released radioactive material into the surrounding environment. 

It's doubtful we will experience a giant tsunami like the one that hit Japan. But extreme weather events, such as floods and hurricanes, could knock out power for extended periods at some U.S. plants — especially if climate modelers are right that such weather could become more prevalent as the climate changes. Sea-level rise could also raise the risks to plants located next to the ocean. Current NRC rules require nuclear plants to have enough backup power on hand to keep cooling systems running for up to eight hours in the event of a blackout. That's how U.S. plants can be designated as “safe” in the interim report: if they meet this test, and by NRC standards, that's safe by definition.

Even the NRC recognizes the absurdity of the situation, though. Gregory Jazcko, the NRC's chairman, has said publicly that he's not convinced our plants could deal with extended loss of power. So even as the commission's task force presented its progress report, the NRC asked reactor managers to supply more documentation to show they're preparing for outside-of-the-box disaster scenarios.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has released his own report citing 69 incidents where backup generators at U.S. nukes have failed, and criticizing the NRC's safety standards in general. 

For those who love bureaucratic technobabble, here's the announcement of the new NRC order.

For those who prefer plain English, here's what's actually happened: the NRC has declared America's nuclear plants safe according to standards that may well be out of date, and Rep. Markey thinks the out-of-date standards aren't good enough.

And finally, for an actual expert talking about nuclear-plant safety, but in a comprehensible way, here's a useful video: