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Wanted: Seismic Experts for the Nuclear Industry

The U.S. nuclear industry needs more qualified people and better equipment to assess seismic risk for its nuclear plants, panelists told regulators in a meeting on post-Fukushima safety recommendations this week in Rockville, Md. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Japan Near-Term Task Force report, which was released in July, outlined 12 action items for bolstering plant safety (you can see them on page 69 of this PDF file), including stronger regulatory oversight of safety performance and enhanced emergency response plans.

If the woes at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March were not sufficient warning about the potential for havoc at nuclear plants following a climate event, a second, albeit gentler, reminder came last month, when a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Mineral, Va. triggered a shutdown of the nearby North Anna nuclear plant. That plant remains offline while regulators and operator Dominion Power evaluate whether it is safe to restart.

Wednesday’s meeting included frank exchanges between representatives from industry, government and organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.

William Leith, Earthquake Hazards Program coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey, said there is still a great deal of research that needs to be done regarding seismic hazard in the eastern and central United States, where most of the country’s 104 nuclear plants are located. The Virginia quake will be used to update existing assessments, Leith said, but he noted limitations regarding data near the epicenter.

“I look at the Virginia earthquake as a missed opportunity, because we didn’t get [to measure] the ground motions close-in, because we don’t have the stations there,” Leith said during Wednesday’s meeting.

While Dominion Power has acknowledged that shaking from the Mineral earthquake exceeded North Anna’s design basis (what the plant was built to withstand), the company’s analysis was not available until weeks after the quake actually occurred.

Aside from timeliness of reporting reliable numbers, accuracy may also be a problem at North Anna and other plants. Leith noted that the North Anna’s 1970s-era equipment is probably not accurate within 10 or even 20 percent, and that more modern equipment is needed — so are independent assessors. Relying on the power plants themselves to report seismic data, Leith said, was like “the state trooper being reliant on the driver for assessing the speed of the vehicle, and that speedometer not being required to be inspected [regularly].”

In general, industry representatives at the NRC meeting agreed with the task force’s recommendations and said that certain measures were already under way, such as creating regional facilities for staging of emergency equipment, including diesel generators and fuel supply.

But Charles Pardee, COO of Exelon Generation and chairman of the industry’s Fukushima response committee, expressed reservations about being able to complete seismic hazard assessments within a short (year or less) time frame. The reason: A lack of talent.

“We need to make sure we have realistic time frames. There are very limited resources for experts in seismic hazard analysis,” Pardee had said at the outset of the meeting.

Later on, Thomas Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council expressed frustration with what he saw as unnecessary delays for rule-making and consensus with industry on some of the recommendations.

“You don’t treat these reactors like you should treat ’em,” Cochran told the NRC’s staff Wednesday. “You ought to order these people to do what’s necessary to make these reactors safe and expect that [those things] get done, and I fully expect Mr. Pardee would be able to staff it out and get it done. And if he doesn’t have the manpower to do it, he can hire more people.”

But Pardee commented later, “The issue with resources, just to be clear, is not one of expanding payrolls. It’s one of simply a finite number of proficient individuals that are experts in their field. This is not a matter of ‘hire more,’ this is a matter of where we would most productively dispatch those [seismic] experts that we [in this industry] have.”

The NRC announced Friday that it is accepting public comments on a draft letter that would require nuclear plants to reevaluate their seismic risk and share that information. Plants would be required to perform the analysis “within either one or two years, depending on the analysis method used,” said the NRC’s release.

The NRC also will meet with industry representatives on Wednesday next week to discuss their plans to address safety post-Fukushima.