One year after the earthquake and tsunami that sparked Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, countries around the world are still scrambling to avoid similar disasters on their soil. And according to the top American nuclear regulator, U.S. plants must find ways to adopt post-Fukushima safety reforms more quickly.


Ever since the March 2011 disasters struck Japan, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has insisted that a similar situation is unlikely in America. But it's not impossible: Several U.S. nuclear plants overlap with seismic hazard zones, especially on the West Coast. Even the relatively minor East Coast earthquake last year exceeded what Virginia's North Anna nuclear plant was built to withstand. (The quake shook North Anna twice as hard as its design allowed, and also rattled casks holding nuclear waste, moving them around by nearly 5 inches.)


The NRC has unveiled new safety rules in response to the Fukushima crisis, mainly dealing with plant operators' plans for dealing with emergencies. But as NRC chief Gregory Jaczko said in an interview broadcast online Sunday, the agency must do something to speed up the adoption of safety reforms at U.S. nuclear plants.


Jaczko already told a House panel last week that the NRC might not meet its five-year deadline to implement the reforms, and on Sunday he told Platts Energy Week TV that "we really need to focus on and figure out if there aren't ways we can accelerate that work and really get it all done within five years." While reiterating that "a Fukushima-type accident is very unlikely in this country," Jaczko acknowledged that "there are some things we need to do" to bolster security.


"Nobody wants to be dealing with the lessons learned from Fukushima six years from now, seven years from now, eight years from now," Jaczko told Platts. "There will be other things that come up, other issues that need to be identified and dealt with, and if we are still working on the Fukushima things, it will make it all that much more challenging to deal with these other issues."


Perhaps in light of the recent scare at North Anna, Jaczko said it will be critical to re-analyze how much seismic activity plants can handle. "That is something right now that the staff, based on what we have heard from the industry, doesn't believe can be done earlier than 2017, 2018, 2019, in that timeframe, which is a little bit longer than what I would like to see," he said. "So I think our job in the next couple of years is to figure out how we can accelerate some of that work, get the experts that are needed in order to do that, get them in place, and get the analyses done."


Last week, Jaczko told House lawmakers the reforms could take "well beyond five years" to implement. Some NRC officials have called for cost-benefit analyses of each proposed reform measure, but Jaczko argues the safety benefits outweigh the costs. "I believe, consistent with what the staff of the agency has recommended, that these changes are necessary to prevent a Fukushima-type accident," he told the House Appropriations Committee panel Wednesday.


Still, in both apperances, Jaczko was careful to make clear that he sees "no imminent threat" facing any U.S. nuclear reactors. As of now, plant operators have until Dec. 31, 2016, to comply with the new NRC safety rules.


See the video of Jaczko's Platts interview below:



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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

U.S. nuclear chief wants faster reforms
One year after Japan's Fukushima crisis began, the U.S. nuclear chief says American reactors should adopt safety reforms more quickly.