The original text of this article appeared in the November issue of the Tennessee Bar Association newsletter. Jarrod Blue, M.S. also contributed to this article.
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan causing widespread destruction and loss of life, as well as significant damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power facility.[iii] As a result of the simultaneous natural disasters, there was a partial meltdown of three of the six reactors.[iv] The Japanese government’s immediate response was establishment of a 20-kilometer evacuation zone around the disaster site.[v] However, it was not until December 16, 2011, that the Japanese government announced that the damaged reactors reached “cold shutdown” status, which occurs when a reactor reaches atmospheric pressures and a temperature below 100 degrees Celsius.[vi]
NRC Task Force Recommendations
The costs of the Fukushima disaster is an evolving number, but has been estimated to reach over $250 billion. As a result of the tremendous costs associated with that disaster, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“NRC”) formed a Task Force, which has conducted a four-month study to determine whether the agency should make additional improvements to its regulatory system and future policy direction.[vii]
The NRC Task Force found that although a Fukushima-like disaster is unlikely, some modifications should nevertheless be made to acknowledge cases of low-likelihood and high consequence events.[viii] The NRC Taskforce recommended the following:
1. Establish a logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework for adequate protection that appropriately balances defense-in-depth and risk considerations.[ix]
2. Require licensees to reevaluate and upgrade as necessary the design-basis[x] seismic and flooding protection of structures, systems, and components for each operating reactor.
3. Evaluate the potential enhancements to the capability to prevent or mitigate seismically induced fires and floods.
4. Strengthen station blackout mitigation capability at all operating and new reactor for design-basis and beyond-design basis external events.
5. Require reliable hardened vent designs in boiling water reactor facilities with Mark I and Mark II containments.
6. Identify methods of hydrogen gas control and mitigation within facilities.
7. Enhance spent fuel pool makeup capability and instrumentation.
8. Strengthen and integrate onsite emergency response capabilities, such as emergency operating procedures, severe accident management guidelines and extensive damage mitigation guidelines.
9. Require facility emergency plans to address prolonged station blackout and multiunit events.
10. Pursue additional emergency preparedness topics related to multi-unit events and prolonged station blackout.
11. Pursue emergency preparedness topics related to decision-making, radiation monitoring, and public education.
12. Strengthen regulatory oversight of licensee safety performance.[xi]
Currently, there are two nuclear power plants in the state of Tennessee: Sequoyah and Watts Bar, both operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (“TVA”). As a result of an earlier study, using U.S. Geological Survey fault data, the NRC found that the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant is located in the fourth-highest earthquake risk area within the United States.[xii] Thus, an earthquake at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant could be devastating, which in a worst case scenario would yield an unprecedented amount of property damage. The odds of an earthquake causing core damage at each of Sequoyah’s two reactors is 1 in 19,608, which are considerably better odds than a local resident being hit by lightning, a 1 in 500,000 chance.[xiii]
The greatest concern at the Sequoyah site is flooding, which was also a concern at the Fukushima site because of the tsunami. Specifically, a NRC letter of January 25, 2012, noted that the sand baskets[xiv] at the site were not capable of withstanding debris associated with a flood along the Tennessee river in a worst-case flood scenario.[xv] The debris from a worst-case scenario flood would pull the individual sand baskets apart and repairs during a flood would be impossible.[xvi] Thus, the TVA is currently exploring permanent modifications that are environmentally friendly, which should be in place by the end of 2015. Thus, before the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant makes its final modifications to prevent flooding, the Task Force would encourage the continuous reevaluation of flood hazards at designated intervals in time. The continuous evaluation is especially important to existing plants, which have the potential to be less resilient to a natural disaster.
Tennessee’s existing plants may be impacted by earthquakes and floods. As a result of the Fukushima disaster, the Department of Energy has retained its support of nuclear power, but indicated that companies applying for nuclear loan guarantees will have to demonstrate their safety as a condition of government financing.[xvii] TVA is in the midst of constructing a second nuclear reactor at Watts Bar.[xviii] That project has faced challenges, one of which includes core deficiencies that have the potential to undermine the entire project if not addressed.[xix]
Currently, the NRC is conducting public meetings to solicit participation on its recommendations and their implementation.[xx] As of this publication, the TVA has not yet conducted similar meetings in Tennessee to aid in the establishment of a logical regulatory framework. Thus, a responsibility rests with the legal community to advise clients as to the impacts and risks that may be associated with being in proximity or assisting in the operation of a nuclear power plant. The impacts of a natural disaster can be catastrophic as evidenced by the damage to the Fukushima Da-ichi plant.
As a result of the operation of nuclear power plants in Tennessee and the construction of a new nuclear reactor in the state, there are a few lessons that can be taken from the Fukushima disaster:
· Due to the location of Tennessee’s nuclear power plants within earthquake zones and potential flood areas; we should address the risks associated with a natural disaster, regardless of how low the risk of actual occurrence.
· As nuclear power plants begin to age and become eligible for NRC license renewal, they should be periodically monitored. Furthermore, the mechanisms utilized to compensate for natural disasters, like sandbagging, should be evaluated to see if new technology will be more responsive to a natural disaster.
· As a result of the Fukushima disaster, it may become more difficult to obtain approval for new power plants within the state, due to a higher degree of safety scrutiny.
· Siting of new facilities should consider the likelihood of natural disasters and utilize a defense-in-depth approach to design basis.
The above list is not exhaustive, but is a suggested step forward as Tennessee continues to utilize and expand its use of nuclear power.
[i] Law Student at the University of Tennessee College of Law
[ii] Partner at Burr & Forman, LLP
[iii] Tison Campbell & Tyson R. Smith, Introduction, ABA Energy Committees Newsletter 1 (2012).
[vii] Recommendations For Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century (July 12, 2011), http://www.psr.org/assets/pdfs/recommendations-for-enhancing-reactor-saf…
[ix] Defense-in-depth is defined by the NRC as an approach to designing and operating nuclear facilities that prevents and mitigates accidents that release radiation or hazardous materials. They key is creating multiple independent and redundant layers of defense to compensate for potential human and mechanical failures so that no single layer, no matter how robust, is exclusively relied upon. Defense-in-depth includes the use of access controls, physical barriers, redundant and diverse key safety functions, and emergency response measures. For further information, see Speech No. S-04-009, “The Very Best-Laid Plans (the NRC’s Defense-in-Depth Philosophy.)
[x] Design-basis accident or phenomena is defined by the NRC as earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and postulated accidents that a nuclear facility must be designed and built to withstand without loss to the systems, structures, and components necessary to ensure public health and safety.
[xi] Recommendations For Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Centuryat vii-ix.
[xii] Pam Sohn, Nuclear plants told to reassess earthquake risks, Times Free Press, February 5, 2012.
[xiv] Sand baskets are temporary wire cages of sand placed atop the sides and embankment to raise the height of the dam. Pam Sohn, TVA uses sand baskets as temporary fixes for flawed flooding calculations, Times Free Press, Aug. 5, 2011.
[xvii] Herman Wang, Fukushima will not affect US nuclear loan guarantee program, Platts, March 31, 2012.
[xviii] Paul Leach, TVA says Watts Bar key to local power, economy, Times Free Press, June 8, 2012.