Officials have recommended that nuclear plants like Nine Mile Point in New York install new safety equipment, but the nuclear indiustry and its representatives in Congress are resisting. Photo: The New York Times

By ERIC LIPTON and MATTHEW L. WALD
26 February 2013

(The New York Times) – Alarms sounded and lights flashed as control panel dials at a nuclear power plant in upstate New York warned that the power for safety equipment was failing. The room went dark until the emergency lights kicked in. But there was no reason to worry on this frozen winter morning.

This was a simulation by Constellation Energy, the owner of the Nine Mile Point plant on Lake Ontario, for the benefit of two of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It was part of an intense lobbying campaign against a proposed rule that would require utilities to spend millions of dollars on safety equipment that could reduce the effects of an accident like the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Japan two years ago.

In this drill, the company tried to show it could handle emergencies without new devices and, of course, everything went according to plan.

Ever since the nuclear accident in Japan released radiation into the atmosphere, regulators in the United States have been studying whether to require filters, costing as much as $45 million, on the vents of each of the country’s 31 boiling water reactors.

The filters, which have been recommended by the staff of the regulatory commission, are supposed to prevent radioactive particles from escaping into the atmosphere. They are required in Japan and much of Europe, but the American utilities say they are unnecessary and expensive.

The industry has held private meetings with commissioners and their staffs, organized a drill like the one this month at Nine Mile Point, and helped line up letters of support from dozens of members of Congress, many of whom received industry campaign contributions.

“We all desire an ideal solution, but it needs to be an integrated one,” said Maria G. Korsnick, Constellation’s chief nuclear officer. She said that a filter was not as helpful as water in the reactor building that would both cool the fuel and absorb radioactive contaminants.

Already, at least two commissioners have questioned the proposal, and industry officials predict that when the vote is taken in the coming weeks, the industry will prevail. But critics are hardly convinced that the industry’s alternative is the safer.

Computer models, they said, may suggest that plant operators can prevent large radioactive releases without the filters, but real-life accidents come with unpredictable complications.

“You never know if it is going to run according to the script,” said Edwin Lyman, a nuclear power expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The debate over the filters reflects a simmering tension that has been building inside the regulatory agency since the Fukushima accident in Japan. A tug of war among commissioners and between some commissioners and staff members has produced repeated votes that reject staff safety recommendations.

Animosities have welled up to the point that four of the five members complained to the White House in late 2011 about the “serious damage to the institution” caused by Gregory B. Jaczko, then the chairman of the commission. The members complained that Mr. Jaczko was cutting them out of the loop as he prepared plans for how the industry should respond to the disaster in Japan.

Mr. Jaczko, who has since resigned, fired back, telling the White House that, “unfortunately, all too often, when faced with tough policy calls, a majority of this current commission has taken an approach that is not as protective of public health and safety as I believe is necessary.”

The White House shied away from the dispute, but accepted Mr. Jaczko’s resignation.

Congress has since gotten involved. Over the last month, 55 lawmakers have signed letters, some pushed by industry lobbyists, that urge commissioners to reject the filters.

“It’s not the time to be rash with hasty new rules,” wrote Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee that oversees the industry, in a letter signed by six other senators. (Twelve senators — 11 Democrats and an independent — signed a letter supporting filtered vents.) [more]

Post-Fukushima, Arguments for Nuclear Safety Bog Down

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