“After Fukushima, Utilities Prepare for Worst,” announced the New York Times in a story timed to this week’s third anniversary of the Japanese triple reactor meltdown. The story described measures ranging from keeping earth-moving machines at the ready (to maintain plant access after disabling earthquakes) to stocking regional depots with tractor-trailers able to deliver emergency gear to stop reactor disasters from spinning out of control.
But the story also pointed, inadvertently, to a striking lapse in institutional memory at the top echelon of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Here’s the quote (with emphasis added):
“Fukushima woke up the world nuclear industry, not just the U.S.,” said the chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison M. Macfarlane, in an interview. “It woke everybody up and said: ‘Hey, you didn’t even think about these different issues happening. You never thought about an earthquake that could create a tsunami that would swamp your emergency diesel generators and leave you without power for an extended period. You . . . have to think about that now.’ “
Never? Really? The record says otherwise. As far back as the 1970s, U.S. reactor operators were required, as a condition of their operating licenses, to plan for and make precautions against seismic-induced flooding (tsunamis). Here’s what Revision 2 of NRC Regulatory Guide 1.59, “Design Basis Floods for Nuclear Power Plants,” said on the subject in August 1977 (again, emphasis added):
The conditions resulting from the worst site-related flood probable at the nuclear power plants (e.g., PMF [Probable Maximum Flood], seismically induced flood, seiche [standing wave], surge, severe local precipitation) with attendant wind-generated wave activity constitute the design basis flood conditions that safety-related structures, systems, and components identified in Regulatory Guide 1.29 [pertaining to safety-related structures, systems and components] should be designed to withstand and retain capability for cold shutdown and maintenance thereof.
You can read more about Reg Guide 1.29 ― in fact, about the entire safety/danger axis on which U.S. reactor costs spun out of control in the seventies and eighties ― in my 1981 book, Power Plant Cost Escalation (large pdf). The point is that Fukushima, catastrophic and eye-opening as it was and is, shouldn’t have been anyone’s wake-up call, much less the NRC chairwoman’s, about the need for equipment and procedures to protect reactors from tsunamis. The need for such safeguards have been written into U.S. reactor licensing requirements for over 35 years.
Dr. Macfarlane’s memory lapse doesn’t bode well for NRC’s safety culture. It certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in the commission’s ability to preside over new-generation nuclear power plants that some envision as an antidote to reliance on coal-fired electricity.