by Marvin Fertel, Nuclear Energy Institute
The devastating March earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the ensuing scrutiny of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident have rightly raised questions about the safe operation of U.S. nuclear energy facilities.
The U.S. nuclear energy industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and government policymakers agree on the need to apply relevant lessons learned from recent events in Japan to enhance safety at U.S. nuclear energy facilities.
While the U.S. nuclear energy industry has amassed an excellent safety record, we can always do more to further enhance safety, and we will. Our nation needs nuclear energy, but we will reap the benefits of this reliable, carbon-free source of electricity only if we continue to ensure the facilities are ready to cope with extreme events, no matter how unlikely.
A September national poll found that 62 percent of Americans continue to favor using nuclear energy to generate electricity, but the problems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station raised legitimate questions about the ability of nuclear plants to withstand natural disasters. As we work through the appropriate response, the industry and our independent regulator, the NRC, agree on three key points:
■ U.S. nuclear plants are safe. There are no threats to public safety. The focus in the aftermath of the Japan accident is not about how to make U.S. nuclear energy facilities safe; it is about how to make them even safer.
■ Applying the lessons learned from Fukushima should not divert attention from our daily focus on safe operation or other priorities. Specifically, federal regulators and the industry should continue to focus on implementing the NRC’s updated emergency preparedness requirements, resolving seismic issues, implementing new fire-protection guidelines and licensing activities for existing and new reactors.
■ We must prioritize our response to Fukushima. Some issues call for a rapid response; others require further study and careful consideration. The Fukushima recovery effort is still under way, and we have not learned everything we need to know from the events in Japan.
The nuclear energy industry generally is aligned with the NRC on steps that should be taken at U.S. reactors, but we are not waiting for the agency to act. In parallel with the NRC’s effort, a special industry committee is proactively applying lessons from Fukushima. The U.S. industry did not wait for an order from the NRC to launch intensive inspections of seismic and flooding preparedness at every U.S. nuclear energy facility; it developed an integrated approach and initiated inspections within one week of the March accident. Early lessons learned are being formulated and steps taken. Nuclear energy operators and regulators here in the United States are taking a fresh look at reactor safety and emergency response equipment, personnel and procedures.
Work is ongoing to verify each facility’s capability to respond to major challenges to the plants, such as losses of key systems at the plant because of natural events, fires or explosions. Specific actions include testing and inspecting equipment required to mitigate these events and verifying that qualifications of operators and support staff required to implement them are current.
We are confirming our ability to manage a loss of off-site power. This requires verification that all required materials are adequate and properly staged and that procedures are in place and focusing on ongoing operator training to be able to respond to these extreme events.
We are verifying our capability to mitigate flooding and the impact of floods on frontline and backup systems inside and outside the plants. Specific actions include verifying required materials and equipment are properly located and shielded to protect them from floods.
We are performing walk-downs and inspections of important equipment needed to respond successfully to extreme events such as fires and floods. This includes analysis to identify any potential that equipment functions could be lost during extreme seismic events appropriate for the site and development of strategies to keep the plants safe during any potential conditions that result from severe events.
We support the NRC’s call for backup monitoring to track water levels and temperatures in used-fuel storage pools. Adding diverse and redundant monitoring capability is in keeping with our overall approach of relying on layer upon layer of safety protections.
The industry generally agrees with the NRC’s near-term proposals. In addition, the industry agrees that the items categorized as Tier 2, Tier 3 and other items by the NRC need further evaluation before action can be proposed or taken. Through such an approach, we can assure that plant improvements will be implemented within a schedule that assures an efficient and effective enhancement in safety.
Plant operators constantly must re-evaluate safety procedures and equipment with the goal of addressing potential problems before they occur. For example, our industry invested more than $2 billion to bolster the safety and security of nuclear energy facilities after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, although those horrific events had nothing to do with nuclear energy.
It is extremely unlikely that any U.S. nuclear energy facility would ever suffer the devastating impact of a combined earthquake and tsunami, but Fukushima triggered another hard look at the safety and security of U.S. nuclear reactors. In accordance with our commitment to continuous improvement, we welcome that scrutiny.
Safety always will be the top priority for the nuclear energy industry. Working together in a proactive, open-minded way will ensure that the tragic events in Japan lead to lasting safety improvements in the U.S. and around the world.
Entergy Nuclear Exec: Fukushima Will Make U.S. Nuclear Operators Even Better
Speaking with future policy leaders is important, an Entergy Nuclear executive said regarding his panel presentation during Harvard Business School’s 2011 Energy Symposium.
“This is an important time for energy policymaking,” said Stewart Minahan, Entergy Nuclear vice president of operations. “Nuclear energy operators in the U.S. are held to the highest standards for safety worldwide, and we will be even better because of Fukushima. It’s time we got this message out.”
Minahan spoke on the current state of nuclear energy as part of an energy and risk panel moderated by Harvard Business School business administration professor Julion Totemberg. The Dialogue for a Brighter Future symposium was presented by the Energy and Environment Club of Harvard University.
The BP oil spill and Japan’s earthquake and tsunami taught energy industries new lessons in public and environmental safety, Minahan said.
“There is a tendency after any big event to want to swing the safety pendulum from reasonable assurance to absolute assurance,” Minahan said. “The fact is that no technology has absolute assurance—not the airlines, automobile manufacturers, NASA, nor in medical practice. Nuclear power has to be held to a high, yet attainable standard. We are doing all that we can to safeguard the public.
“The nuclear industry in the U.S. is still taking Fukushima very seriously. Our operators are combing through the details, providing input to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, working on new processes focused on severe events and leading global task forces that are focusing on international standards.”
Minahan is on loan to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington, D.C., where he serves as the executive director of nuclear operations. There he works on policy and nuclear industry issues with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He has been engaged in formulating the U.S. industry regulatory response to the Fukushima events.
“Fukushima may have fallen off the daily news cycle, but it certainly won’t be out of focus for U.S. operators for years to come,” Minahan said.
Nuclear energy provides 20.5 percent of U.S. electricity and is its No. 1 source of emission-free electricity. One hundred and four U.S. nuclear power plants in 31 states generated nearly 807 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010. In seven states, nuclear makes up the largest percentage of their electricity generated: Vermont at 73.3 percent; Virginia at 36.3 percent; South Carolina at 49.9 percent, New Jersey at 49.9 percent, New Hampshire at 49.1 percent, Illinois at 47.1 percent and Connecticut at 50.3 percent.
Entergy Corp. is an integrated energy company engaged primarily in electric power production and retail distribution operations. Entergy owns and operates power plants with some 30,000 MW of electric generating capacity. It is the second-largest nuclear generator in the United States. Entergy delivers electricity to 2.7 million utility customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Entergy has annual revenues of more than $10 billion and more than 15,000 employees.
Marvin Fertel is president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. Visit http://nei.org for more information.