U.S. report proposes overhaul of nuclear rules

WASHINGTON/HOUSTON Tue Jul 12, 2011 9:10pm EDT

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WASHINGTON/HOUSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. nuclear safety regulator should weigh an overhaul of its rules and guidelines used to keep plants safe when disaster strikes, a task force recommended on Tuesday, according to a source familiar with its report.

In the most far-reaching review of U.S. nuclear safety since the September 11 attacks a decade ago, the report explores whether a philosophical shift is needed would force utilities to comply with additional rules in the wake of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

The report, if adopted, could lead to cost increases for operators of the nation's fleet of 104 reactors, such as Exelon, Entergy, and PG&E.

It could also affect utilities planning the nation's first new nuclear plants in 30 years -- Southern Co in Georgia and SCANA Corp in South Carolina -- although new nuclear plants are already grappling with the competitive threat from cheap and abundant supplies of natural gas.

But the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission would first need to decide whether the shift is warranted. The task force, in its series of 34 recommendations, did not find any immediate safety issues.

"The current regulatory approach and more importantly the resultant plant capabilities allowed the task force to conclude that a sequence of events like that in Fukushima is unlikely to occur in the United States," said a copy of the report obtained by Reuters.

The report is likely to disappoint nuclear critics who had called for the U.S. regulator to pause on renewing licenses for aging plants, and making decisions on new reactors -- but the task force did not go that far, the source said.

"Continued operation and continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety," the report said.

FUKUSHIMA SPARKED REGULATORY SOUL-SEARCH

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the large Fukushima nuclear plant, and officials in Japan continue to grapple with cleaning up radioactive waste from the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered its task force to examine the disaster for "lessons learned." The NRC will now embark on a six-month broader review, and is expected to invite industry and the public to participate.

Many of the report's recommendations dealt with shoring up back-up systems to kick in when plants lose all sources of power, as happened after the March 11 quake and tsunami in Japan overwhelmed the Fukushima plant.

The report recommended 11 orders -- instructions for plants that the commission could implement quickly, if it agreed to do so.

One suggested order would see NRC inspectors renew checks to ensure plants live up to seismic standards, the report said.

It also included seven rule-makings, which tend to take at least two years to complete, and often much longer.

Part of the shift would bring voluntary industry guidelines about mitigating severe accidents under the regulator's purview, which would require extensive rule-making.

Commissioners are slated to give their first public statements on the task force recommendations at a public hearing on July 19, while Chairman Gregory Jaczko -- who is pushing for an expedited response -- will speak publicly at a National Press Club event a day earlier.

(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe, Mari Saito, Tom Doggett and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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