NRC fires back at Bay State's House of Representatives

Posted

Saturday, September 13
BRATTLEBORO -- You've nearly got it all wrong.

That's the message from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

In July, the Bay State's House passed a resolution in support of efforts to have independent safety assessments conducted at nuclear power plants in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.

In addition, resolved the House, the NRC needs to establish "strong procedures and regulations to mandate safe storage and transportation of nuclear waste."

The Legislature also resolved that it's time the nation begin its transition "away from nuclear power to an affordable, clean and sustainable national energy policy."

The resolution had several bullet points that were of concern to the House of Representatives. Those included were accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and an earthquake in that affected nuclear reactors in Japan. The legislators also expressed concern over nuclear waste and proliferation, emergency evacuation plans and radioactive emissions from power plants.

"We do not typically respond to legislative resolutions," wrote Neil Sheehan, in an e-mail to the Reformer. "However, this one contained so many misconceptions we felt compelled to do so."

The resolution, titled "Concerning the Health and Safety of the Citizens of Massachusetts and the Operation and Inspection of Nuclear Power Plants," was ratified on July 23 and forwarded to the NRC shortly thereafter.

"I understand the concerns raised by the Commonwealth," wrote Samuel J. Collins, an NRC regional administrator, in response to the resolution. "However, I feel it is necessary to address some of the statements and assumptions conveyed in that document to dispel any misconceptions you may have with our regulatory role, performance, or processes."

He then set out to address each of the items the NRC says the House of Representatives got wrong.

"Twenty-nine years ago, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant experienced a partial meltdown reactor accident, resulting in explosions, the loss of coolant water, radioactive contamination and a mass evacuation," stated the resolution.

While the accident was the most serious event to have happened at a commercial nuclear power plant in the United States, wrote Collins, "It appropriately resulted in profound changes to the industry and to the NRC's oversight process."

Though there was a partial meltdown, he wrote, there were no explosions due to the lack of oxygen in the reactor vessel.

"Additionally, extensive studies conducted by the NRC and by other state and federal agencies verify that only a very small amount of radioactivity had been released."

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Collins did admit that on a regular basis nuclear power plants emit radioactive gases and liquids into the environment but "they pose no danger to the public or the environment. These releases dissipate into the atmosphere or a large water source and, therefore, are diluted to the point where it becomes difficult to measure any radioactivity."

Collins also acknowledged legislative concerns over the security and safeguarding of radioactive materials, including radioactive waste, and potential terrorist threats to nuclear power plants and the waste stored on-site.

"Nuclear facilities and dry casks are designed to be inherently robust structures," wrote Collins.

The Massachusetts Legislature contended that "during a nuclear accident it may be impossible to evacuate and protect all Massachusetts residents from the adverse health effects of exposure to radioactive isotopes."

Response planning and implementation is a coordinated effort between federal, state, and local organizations and the licensees, wrote Collins.

"State and local officials have the overall responsibility for developing radiological emergency response plans and implementing emergency response actions."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency evaluates those plans while the NRC evaluates emergency response plans developed by the licensees regarding plant emergency actions.

"The NRC published a study in January 2005 that examined the efficiency and effectiveness of public evacuations of 1,000 or more people in response to natural disasters, technological hazards, and malevolent acts, occurring in the U.S. between January 1, 1990 and January 30, 2003," wrote Collins. "This study revealed that large-scale evacuations in the U.S., whether pre-planned or ad hoc, are very effective, successfully save lives, and reduce the potential number of injuries associated with the hazards."

As far as an independent safety inspection of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon is concerned, wrote Collins, the state is already conducting a reliability assessment of the facility.

"It is important to note that the state review is focused on assessing reliability, affordability, and availability," he wrote. "The U.S. NRC has the sole authority to regulate the safety and security of commercial nuclear power plants."

Nonetheless, he wrote, the NRC was working to provide to the state anything it needs to conduct its audit.

The NRC has received a number of requests to conduct an ISA at various plants, similar to the one conducted at Maine Yankee in 1996, wrote Collins.

"That ISA was a unique, one-time inspection in response to a specific set of concerns," wrote Collins. "The NRC's Reactor Oversight Process, implemented in 2000, incorporates nearly all of the key inspection elements addressed in the Maine Yankee ISA. The Commission remains convinced that the oversight process is more effective than an ISA because it is a continual assessment process and it provides for increased oversight of plants and programs that exhibit declining performance."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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