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WASHINGTON/HOUSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. nuclear industry this week gets its first peek at a roadmap for new regulations that ultimately could cost it billions in the wake of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
But the bottom-line impact of Fukushima on the U.S. fleet of 104 reactors could take most of the next decade to calculate.
Most expect Tuesday's report from a task force of senior staff members at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be just the first step in years of deliberation and rule-making to ensure U.S. plants can better withstand catastrophes like the March earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima plant.
The head of the U.S. NRC has said he wants the agency to move as fast as it can to ensure the world's largest nuclear power producer can withstand catastrophes.
The last time the commission carried out such regulatory soul-searching -- after the September 11, 2001 attacks -- it took a decade to get the entire plan in place.
After Fukushima, the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years, the NRC is expected to step up requirements for U.S. plants to be able keep running even if they lose power for days or weeks.
"I do think that the industry is expecting to make some changes that will cost a great deal of money," said Craven Crowell, a former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned utility, who has worked in the nuclear industry for more than 30 years.
The changes could be expensive for plant owners, such as Exelon, Entergy and PG&E, and could affect the first new plants planned in 30 years -- Southern Co's Vogtle plant in Georgia and SCANA Corp's facility in South Carolina.
It will take time for NRC staff and the five-member commission to agree on the detailed changes needed, and send those changes through the tortuous rule-making process.
"In general, we're probably looking at a two- to three-year timeframe, at least," said Daniel Stenger, a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of law firm Hogan Lovells that focuses on nuclear energy.
The sometimes-fractious commission will need to find consensus to move forward. Commissioners are slated to give their first public statements on the task force recommendations at a public hearing on July 19.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, seen as the most activist member of the commission, has urged an expedited timeline.
"It, I think, will not be acceptable if 10 years from now we're still working through the recommendations of this task force," Jaczko said at a May hearing.
The NRC last overhauled its rules after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when plants were seen as potential targets. It took until 2009 for the agency to finalize a comprehensive set of rules, and one regulation concerning emergency preparedness has yet to be finalized.
Almost 10 years later, a dozen of the 64 nuclear power stations in the country are still working to comply with the rules, according to NRC records.
"There is no question that the nuclear industry dragged its feet after 9/11 in implementing the security upgrades needed to adequately protect their plants against terrorist attacks," said Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that advocates for nuclear safety.
NRC officials said that while the beefed-up security measures took years to finalize, interim safety measures were already in place at nuclear facilities around the country.
"We took a full array of comprehensive, substantial steps that were in place by October 2004 in direct response to NRC requirements within the deadline that was established at the time," said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the industry's trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The 1986 Chernobyl disaster led to little U.S. industry change due to major design differences between U.S. plants and the Russian reactor that lacked safety features, accident alert procedures and close regulation.
After the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed a 12-member commission within two weeks to study and recommend changes for plants.
That work took about 18 months, but some of the changes were later found to be unnecessary and counterproductive.
The industry created a peer-review group, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, to raise safety standards. INPO has been suggested as a model for a global nuclear enforcement agency after Fukushima.
It took about a decade before the industry and regulator fully understood what happened at Three Mile Island, recalled Margaret Harding, a former vice president at GE-Hitachi responsible for engineering quality.
It will take years before all the details of the Fukushima disaster are fully understood, and some of the most technical changes may need to wait until the jury is in, Harding said.
"It's kind of like recalling cars without knowing what's wrong," said Harding, now an industry consultant.
But the NRC does not need to wait for all the details on the disaster to know that it needs to examine how well-equipped plants are to withstand a long-term power blackout, she said.
"Our expectation is that it's going to take years to fully digest and discern lessons from Japan," the NEI's Kerekes said. "That doesn't mean we are waiting; we've already taken numerous steps and we will continue to do that."
The release of the task force report is expected to kick off a second, more detailed six-month review in which the public and the industry can share their views with the NRC.
The NRC has so far ignored public calls to hold off on renewing operating licenses for aging plants and making decisions on new reactor designs until the Fukushima reviews are complete.
"We want a procedure set up so that new licenses and renewed licenses are not approved unless there's an opportunity for public participation," said Diane Curran, a public interest lawyer in Washington who has represented groups fighting power plants for 30 years.
The NRC needs to take its time to examine fully whether its rules and inspections need to be ratcheted up to deal with disasters that go beyond the "design basis" that plants are currently required to live up to, Curran said.
"It does seem to be one of the lessons of the Fukushima accident that the whole regulatory program needs to shift," she said.
Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Dale Hudson