How Should NRC Respond to Japan's Nuclear Disaster?

Nuclear regulators send mixed signals on how American industry must respond.

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It's important to learn from one's own mistakes. But when the mistakes are someone else's, are the lessons as significant?

That's the dilemma for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as it continues to carry out its safety mission in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear catastrophe in Japan.

On Tuesday, its five commissioners, including Chairman Gregory Jaczko, testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about a report released last week by its post-Fukushima Near-Term Task Force. The report—and the commissioners themselves, who are split on the report's recommendations—sent mixed signals about the safety of America's nuclear reactor fleet, adding uncertainty to the future of nuclear power in the country.

[Read our coverage from Japan's disaster in March.]

According to the report, "a sequence of events like the Fukushima accident is unlikely to occur in the United States." It also says that the country's nuclear reactors can remain up and running without posing "an imminent risk to public health and safety." But despite the assurances, the same report also makes a dozen recommendations about how to further regulate and update nuclear safety procedures.

For California Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, it's a matter of "common sense" that recommendations included in the report go into effect as soon as possible. "For both the safety and confidence of the American public, the NRC must act without delay. It is not acceptable now that we have the results of the Task Force review, to merely call for more study, and further delay," she said at the hearing Tuesday, adding that it was the witnesses' "moral and legal responsibility" to act.

[Take the U.S. News poll: Should the U.S. put a hold on building new nuclear power plants?]

On the other side of the aisle, however, Republicans are saying not so fast. Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander compared overzealous regulations to a traffic cop who stops every single car on the road in the name of safety. Others, like the committee's ranking member Sen. James Inhofe from Oklahoma, argue that there's still not enough information about the events and response in Japan to merit such a quick response from American regulators. "There are many facts that we still don't know about the accident, not just about the technical aspects but also emergency preparedness and the impact of external influences on decision-making," Inhofe said Tuesday referring to the incident in Japan. "It is important to remember that the Japanese regulatory system is very different from our own."

Most of the regulatory commissioners said they agree that while some of the recommendations will indeed take longer to put in place, about half can be implemented in the near term, such as requiring plants to re-evaluate the potential for floods and earthquakes.

[See photos of the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami.]

However, one recommendation, which calls for "establishing a logical, systematic, and coherent regulatory framework for adequate protection," may take some more thought. According to Jaczko, one problem facing both the industry and regulators is that many of the standing rules and procedures had been implemented piece-by-piece in reaction to events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and past nuclear accidents during the 1970s and 1980s. The report describes it as a "patchwork regulatory approach."

The question now is whether regulators will take the time to consider a comprehensive framework or again respond quickly to the most recent disaster. For the NRC, which is supposed to be a nonpartisan, independent commission, politics will surely play a part.

  • Read our coverage from Japan's disaster in March.
  • Take the U.S. News poll: Should the U.S. put a hold on building new nuclear power plants?
  • See photos of the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami.