Nuclear Safety Requires New NRC Commissioners: Author

Americans remain at higher risk for a radiological disaster as long as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission remains under the influence of the nuclear-power industry, an expert on nuclear safety and security said in Chicago Thursday.
"It's common knowledge in Washington that anyone nominated to be a commissioner to the NRC has to be pre-approved by the nuclear industry," said Edwin Lyman, a physicist turned senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "In order to get a more independent mindset, you've got to break that stranglehold."
Lyman's comments arrived amid criticism of the NRC for doing too little to implement seismic safety upgrades recommended after the Fukushima disaster three years ago.
Lyman visited Northwestern University on Wednesday and the University of Chicago on Thursday to argue that design failures in the General Electric Mark I reactor enabled the Fukushima disaster.
He just published a book, "Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster," written with David Lochbaum, director of the Union's Nuclear Safety Program, and Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Susan Q. Stranahan, who covered the Three Mile Island accident. The book describes the Fukushima disaster as it unfolded, implicating reactor design in the meltdowns, explosions, and radioactive emissions that followed the earthquake and tsunami in Japan three years ago.
Design engineers never contemplated a complete loss of electrical power, Lyman said, nor thought enough about the behavior of zirconium cladding on fuel rods in extreme heat, which led to hydrogen explosions.
Even post-Fukushima, Lyman said, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission exhibits a similar lack of imagination.
"We don't think the current NRC requirements leave enough room for error," Lyman told about 60 people gathered at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy Thursday. His visit was sponsored by the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago.
For example, the Oconee Nuclear Power Plant in Seneca, South Carolina remains vulnerable to the same earthquake, tsunami and flooding risks that led to meltdowns at Fukushima, according to Lyman. And the NRC continues to ignore earthquake risks at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant sited near a number of seismic faults on the Central California coast.
Lyman blames industry influence over the NRC. The only two recent commissioners not approved by industry—former chair Gregory Jazcko, who resigned under pressure in 2012, and current chair Allison M. Macfarlane—had to be paired with industry favorites, Lyman said, to win Congressional approval.
Jazcko was paired with Peter B. Lyons, Macfarlane with the renomination of Kristine L. Svinicki.
In response to Fukushima, the nuclear industry and NRC have embraced a "FLEX" strategy, at a cost of $20-$30 million per reactor, to keep emergency response equipment, such as pumps and generators, at a variety of locations around a nuclear site in an attempt to save some of the equipment in the event of an earthquake, flood, terrorist attack, or other event.
Lyman prefers the approach taken by the French nuclear industry , at a cost of about $100 million per reactor, of keeping emergency-response equipment in a facility designed to withstand such events.
Underlying the planning done by the industry and NRC, Lyman said, is a mindset.
"If the nuclear industry, regulators, and politicians don't abandon that 'it-can't-happen-here' mindset, we're going to be in trouble here sooner or later," he said.
Asked how you change a mindset, Lyman said, "You may not be able to change a mindset, you may have to change the people."
[Corrected: the Mark I reactor is a General Electric design, not Westinghouse as the story originally stated.]
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