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Fertel: Applying Nuclear Lessons From Fukushima Disaster

The nuclear energy industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and government policymakers are in agreement on the need to apply relevant lessons learned from recent events in Japan to enhance safety at U.S. nuclear energy facilities.

Even though the American nuclear energy industry has an excellent safety record, we have to get this right. Our nation needs nuclear energy, but we will only reap the benefits of this reliable, carbon-free source of electricity if we ensure that the facilities can cope with extreme natural events, no matter how unlikely.

Although support for nuclear energy remains strong — a September national poll found that 62 percent of Americans favor using nuclear energy to generate electricity — the problems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear energy facility after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami raised legitimate questions about the ability of nuclear plants to withstand natural disasters. As we work through the appropriate response, the industry and the NRC are in alignment on three key points:

• America’s nuclear plants are safe. There are no threats to public safety. The focus in the aftermath of the Japan accident is not about how to make U.S. nuclear energy facilities safe, it is about how to make them even safer.

• Applying the lessons learned from Fukushima should not divert attention from our daily focus on safe operation or other priorities. Specifically, federal regulators and the industry should continue to focus on implementing the NRC’s updated emergency preparedness requirements, resolving seismic issues, implementing new fire-protection guidelines and licensing activities for existing and new reactors.

• We must prioritize our response to Fukushima. Some issues call for a rapid response; others require further study and careful consideration. The Fukushima recovery effort is still under way, and we have not learned everything we need to know from the events in Japan.

The nuclear energy industry is generally aligned with the NRC on steps that should be taken at America’s reactors, but we are not waiting for the agency to act. In parallel with the NRC’s effort, a special industry committee is applying lessons from Fukushima. The U.S. industry did not wait for an order from the NRC to launch intensive inspections of seismic and flooding preparedness at every U.S. nuclear energy facility — they developed an integrated approach and conducted inspections within one week of the March accident.

The industry evaluated the readiness of operators and equipment to respond to events similar to what occurred in Japan, including maintaining used-fuel storage cooling and managing an extended loss of off-site power for vital safety systems. The inspections, which confirmed the NRC’s assessments that U.S. nuclear plants are safe, identified areas for additional safety enhancements that are now under way. The industry is on target to have 95 percent of those improvements in place by the end of 2011.

We can always do more to further enhance safety, and we will. We support the NRC’s call for backup monitoring to track water levels and temperatures in used-fuel storage pools. Adding redundant monitoring capability is in keeping with our overall approach of relying on layer upon layer of safety protections.

Other NRC recommendations require a closer look. Proposals to re-evaluate the current licensing criteria and possible upgrades to design standards for seismic events are time-consuming, complex and highly technical matters that should not be rushed.

Safety has always been a top priority for the nuclear energy industry. Plant operators are constantly re-evaluating safety procedures and equipment with the goal of addressing potential problems before they occur. Our industry invested more than $2 billion to bolster the safety and security of nuclear energy facilities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, even though that horrific event had nothing to do with nuclear energy.

Although it is highly unlikely that any U.S. nuclear energy facility would ever suffer the devastating effect of a combined earthquake and tsunami, Fukushima has rightfully triggered another hard look at the safety and security of America’s reactors. We welcome that scrutiny. Industry self-regulation is an essential element for the continued safety of nuclear energy facilities, but so is independent regulation and accountability to the public and to elected officials.

Working together in a deliberate way will ensure that the tragic events in Japan lead to lasting and meaningful safety improvements around the world. That is the outcome we all seek.

Marvin S. Fertel is president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

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