Dateline: FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR COMPLEX

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane and other NRC officials in the darkened interior of Reactor 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex northeast of Tokyo Dec. 13.
NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane and other NRC officials in the darkened interior of Reactor 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex northeast of Tokyo Dec. 13.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane stood before plant workers at the Fukushima Dai-ichi and Dai-ni sites Thursday, praised their efforts after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and said the global nuclear community must learn the lessons unfolding from the tragedy.

Macfarlane, who is leading a delegation of high-ranking U.S. officials to a meeting in Japan on improving nuclear safety, toured the stricken complex and praised assembled employees “for the creative and selfless actions” during and after the crisis. “You are true heroes,” she said.

The tour of the facility helped offer a “sense of what you went through” and “what you learned. All regulators need to learn these lessons,” she added.

Macfarlane was accompanied by several senior NRC officials on the site visit, along with U.S. Embassy officers and others. All donned layers of protective clothing and full-face respirators – the same as worn by plant cleanup workers – for the tour of the facility.

Stepping into an industrial elevator for the four-floor ride to the top of the spent fuel pool at reactor 4, heavily damaged by one of several hydrogen explosions to rip through the complex, the visitors stood by the thick steel plates covering the pool. They then descended narrow stairs to view work undertaken by TEPCO to provided added strength to the pool structure.

Reached by a three-hour train and bus journey from Tokyo, the NRC team approached the site through empty villages in which weeds grew in vacant parking lots in front of storefronts with broken windows and interiors littered with debris. The visit came on one of the rare days displaced residents were allowed back to their homes.

The U.S. Delegation will meet with leaders of the new Japanese nuclear regulatory counterpart to the NRC on Friday, then take part in the gathering of global nuclear regulatory officials in Koriyama City over the weekend.

Here is the text of a statement issued by Macfarlane after her Fukushima tour:

Today’s visit to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, nearly two years after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that caused the nuclear accident, was a deeply moving and thought-provoking experience. We commend the people of Japan for their courage in working to mitigate the effects of the accident in the face of tremendous obstacles at great personal risk, especially in the first few weeks after the disaster.

There are a number of lessons that have come from this tragic accident that are important for all countries with nuclear power reactors including: the importance of an independent regulator that operates in an open and transparent manner; the need for measures to prevent and mitigate severe accidents that displace people or contaminate land; and the significance of international cooperation to share experience and expertise to strengthen nuclear safety and security worldwide.

The accident has profoundly changed the nuclear safety landscape and brought a new urgency to improving nuclear safety worldwide. We’ve learned a considerable amount from the accident, identified numerous specific technical issues that require renewed attention, and made measurable progress in implementing improvements. But there is more work ahead and we are committed to working with Japan and other international partners to ensure long-term sustainability in the nuclear safety enhancements made since the accident.

Eliot Brenner
Director, Office of Public Affairs

There’s a long way to go on San Onofre restart review

sanoGiven the interest in the NRC’s San Onofre-related meeting in Maryland next week, it’s a good time to step back and see where things stand in reviewing the plant’s restart request.

Of course, the San Onofre nuclear power plant has been safely shut down for almost a year now, after the plant discovered unexpectedly advanced wear in its steam generators. In March of this year the NRC told Southern California Edison the plant will remain safely shut down until the utility does several things to show an appropriate response to what’s caused the wear.

A vital part of SCE’s response is a detailed plan on safely restarting the plant in light of the steam generator wear. SCE delivered that restart plan about two months ago, and the NRC’s experts have begun reviewing the plan and have repeatedly discussed the situation publicly in meetings near the plant.

It’s important to remember the NRC’s review will take many months to complete — we’re still in the early stages of that process. That brings us to next week’s meeting.

The staff, as part of their usual process, isn’t accepting SCE’s plan at face value. The staff has provided additional technical questions on Nov. 30 and Dec. 10 for the utility to answer; the meeting allows a public, open discussion of both the staff’s understanding of the plan and their new questions. While SCE might need to discuss some information in a non-public part of the meeting, all the staff’s questions will be part of the public session.

The NRC wants to be perfectly clear here – this is only one step in a long process, and a final decision on whether San Onofre can restart is months away.

Each year, the NRC’s well-established review process includes having hundreds of this sort of public meeting on a variety of highly technical matters at agency headquarters. It’s not possible to bring all these meetings to the communities near the plants in question, but the staff is making sure a webcast and phone line are available for this meeting so that people near San Onofre can observe the review process in action and ask the NRC staff questions.

The NRC expects to hold at least one more meeting near the plant and there will be additional opportunities for input prior to any final restart decision.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer
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