Fukushima disaster not "unforeseen"-NRC commissioner
* Japan nuclear disaster not "unthinkable"-Apostolakis
* Fukushima not designed to withstand historical tsunamis
* "We have time to think and be methodical"
* Wants senior staff to evaluate options in 45 days
* NRC could still meet Chairman Jaczko's 90-day goal
WASHINGTON, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Japan's nuclear disaster was not the kind of "unforeseen" event that would require a radical overhaul of safety rules for U.S. plants, a commissioner at the U.S. nuclear regulatory agency said on Wednesday.
Emerging evidence shows that a tsunami like the one that overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March could happen once every 1,000 years or less, said George Apostolakis, one of three Democrats on the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
That kind of frequency would be unacceptable for U.S. plants not to be prepared for and it showed the plant was not adequately designed to protect against events that were within the realm of probability, Apostolakis said.
"This focus on the unthinkable is really misplaced. It was not unthinkable at all," Apostolakis said in a speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
He said not enough people have yet acknowledged the issue that the plant should been better secured. "This is the kind of secret that everybody knows but nobody wants to say anything about."
The U.S. regulator should now reconfirm that the country's fleet of 104 nuclear reactors owned by some of the country's biggest utilities are designed to withstand disasters within historical probabilities. But the NRC would have had a much bigger task if Fukushima's disaster truly was "unthinkable," Apostolakis said.
"If it was really unthinkable, there would be great urgency, it seems to me, to really try to think about these kind of unlikely events and how we can protect the plants," he said.
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"WE HAVE TIME TO THINK AND BE METHODICAL"
A task force of six senior NRC staff examining lessons from Fukushima said that there is no imminent risk that a similar disaster could unfold in the United States.
"That means we have time to think and be methodical," Apostolakis said.
Last month, the task force released a report with a series of recommendations, some of which would force plants to plan for catastrophes beyond what they were originally designed to withstand, potentially adding millions in costs for operators like Exelon (EXC.N), Entergy (ETR.N), and PG&E (PCG.N).
The NRC has not yet decided how to move forward.
Chairman Gregory Jaczko wants commissioners to rule on each task force recommendation within 90 days, with a goal for completing and implementing new rules within five years -- an expedited timetable for the agency.
Jaczko has not formally voted on how to move forward. But the four other commissioners including Apostolakis have advocated an alternate approach.
The commissioners said they want top NRC operations staff to develop a schedule within 45 days to evaluate the task force ideas and gather input from the public and industry. [ID:nN1E76R0IJ]
"There is a systematic way of processing things through the agency," Apostolakis said.
"It's the normal way the commission makes decisions," he told reporters.
Under this approach, Apostolakis said the NRC could still make key decisions in 90 days, as advocated by Jaczko. (Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)