* 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
By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, Aug 3 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
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
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,"
"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
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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,"
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.
"There is a systematic way of processing things through the
agency," Apostolakis said.
"It's the normal way the commission makes decisions," he
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)