US nuclear agency plans safety review of reactors

Japan crisis has raised concerns about safety of nuclear plants worldwide.

Updated: Mar 24, 2011, 13:06 PM IST

Washington: The top US nuclear regulator on Wednesday approved the launch of a safety review of US nuclear reactors sought by President Barack Obama in response to the ongoing crisis at Japan`s Fukushima plant.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted to create an agency task force made up of current and former commission experts that will review the information from the disaster and advise whether any changes are needed at US nuclear plants.

"We will perform a systematic and methodical review to see if there are changes that should be made to our programs and regulations to ensure protection of public health and safety," NRC head Gregory Jaczko said in a statement.

For almost two weeks, the Japanese government has struggled to avert a major meltdown at the Fukushima plant, which lost power after being battered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami. The crisis has raised concerns about the safety of nuclear plants worldwide.

President Barack Obama last week requested a review of US nuclear plants while maintaining his support for atomic energy, which supplies about 20 percent of US electricity.

Companies had been planning their first new additions to the US nuclear fleet since a 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania stopped expansion.

The NRC has been evaluating applications for new construction licenses from Southern Co and SCANA Corp to build two reactors each.

Two stages for review

In the first stage of its work, the task force will look into whether any immediate changes are needed to insure the safety of nuclear plants during emergencies like earthquakes, hurricanes or power blackouts, and recommend whether any changes are needed in inspections or licensing reviews.

"The task force efforts should be informed by some stakeholder input but should be independent of industry efforts," Jaczko said in a memo to Bill Borchardt, the head of operations at the NRC.

The NRC will provide formal reports every 30 days for the next three months as a part of the first stage, and will hold four public meetings. The first is scheduled for April 14.

A longer-term, six-month review will take a closer look at the "sequence of events" at the Japanese plant, and consider whether the US regulator needs any new rules, weighing input from the industry.

The safety review was proposed at a meeting on Monday, and on Wednesday was formally approved by the five commissioners at the helm of the regulator.

"The devastation in Japan constitutes an unprecedented tragedy for that nation," Commissioner Kristine Svinicki wrote in voting in favour of the plan.

"We need to keep in mind, however, that this crisis has not created an emergency in the United States, and the Commission and the staff should adhere to existing protocols," she said.

Bureau Report