WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. nuclear energy industry will learn important lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi accident and "identify additional steps we can and will take to further improve safety at our nuclear plants," one of the industry’s leaders told a U.S. Senate committee today.
"U.S. nuclear power plants are safe. Still, we cannot be complacent about the accident at Fukushima," said William Levis, president and chief operating officer at PSEG Power LLC, which operates three reactors in New Jersey and is part owner of two others in Pennsylvania. "We know we operate in an environment where the penalties for mistakes are high and where credibility and public confidence, once lost, are difficult to recover."
PSEG Power is a member company of the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, Levis said that some of the many physical and procedural improvements made at U.S. nuclear plants over the past 30 years "have been designed to mitigate severe natural and plant-centered events similar to those experienced at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The types of events include a complete and sustained loss of AC power, a sustained loss of vital cooling water pumps, major fires and explosions that would prevent access to critical equipment, hydrogen control and venting, and loss of multiple safety systems."
The industry invests heavily in nuclear energy facilities to ensure their ability to safely, reliably produce 20 percent of U.S. electricity supplies, Levis said.
"We invested approximately $6.5 billion in 2009 at 104 operating plants -to replace steam generators, reactor vessel heads and other equipment and in other capital projects," he said.
The events at Fukushima already have prompted U.S. nuclear plant owners to approve an industry-wide assessment, to be completed within 30 days, to verify and validate each plant site's readiness to manage extreme events, Levis said. The assessment includes these actions:
Verifying each plant's capability to manage major challenges, such as aircraft impacts and losses of large areas of the plant due to natural events, fires or explosions. Specific actions include testing and inspecting equipment required to mitigate these events, and verifying that qualifications of operators and support staff required to implement them are current.
Verifying each plant's capability to manage a total loss of off-site power. This will require verification that all required materials are adequate and properly staged and that procedures are in place, and focusing operator training on these extreme events.
Verifying the capability to mitigate flooding and the impact of floods on systems inside and outside the plant. Specific actions include verifying required materials and equipment are properly located to protect them from flood.
Performing walk-downs and inspection of important equipment needed to respond successfully to extreme events like fires and flood. This work will include analysis to identify any potential that equipment functions could be lost during seismic events appropriate for the site, and development of strategies to mitigate any potential vulnerabilities.
"The U.S. nuclear industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the World Association of Nuclear Operators and other expert organizations in the United States and around the world will conduct detailed reviews of the accident, identify lessons learned, and we will incorporate these lessons learned into the design and operation of U.S. nuclear power plants. When we fully understand the facts surrounding the event in Japan, we will use those insights to make nuclear energy even safer," Levis said.
A key factor in U.S. industry's safety performance is the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, formed after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident to help the industry achieve excellence in safety and operations above and beyond federal regulatory requirements. INPO's 350 employees monitor plant operations on a daily basis, accredit training programs, conduct formal evaluations of every U.S. nuclear plant every two years, and compile and share information on operating events throughout the industry.
"The President's Oil Spill Commission, in its report on the Deepwater Horizon accident, identified INPO as the model for self-regulation by the offshore oil and gas industry," Levis said. "It may not be obvious to the outside world, but as an industry we have an enormous self-interest in safe operations. We preserve and enhance the asset value of our 104 operating plants first and foremost by maintaining focus on safety. Safety is the basis for regulatory confidence, and for political and public support of this technology."
Levis reminded senators not to extrapolate earthquake and tsunami data from one location of the world to another when evaluating natural hazards, emphasizing that the catastrophic events in Japan occurred along a "subduction zone," the type of tectonic region that produces earthquakes of the largest magnitude. In the continental United States, the only subduction zone lies off the coast of northern California, Oregon and Washington. None of California's four reactors are located near this subduction zone. The California Coastal Commission last week concluded that a "nuclear emergency such as is occurring in Japan is extremely unlikely at the state's two operating nuclear power plants," Levis said.
"I can think of no better summary of the status of U.S. nuclear power plants than the one delivered by President Obama to the American people on March 17," Levis said. "Mr. Obama said: 'Our nuclear power plants have undergone exhaustive study, and have been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies. But when we see a crisis like the one in Japan, we have a responsibility to learn from this event, and to draw from those lessons.'"
Levis' testimony and up-to-date information on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant can be found on NEI's website.