A Fukushima Lesson Unlearned: NRC scraps public rulemaking on weak GE containments

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Fukushima Reactors

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) typically begins its narrative on the “lessons learned” from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe with Japan’s March 11, 2011accident. Not surprisingly, the agency has avoided addressing the most critical lesson recognized in the accident’s official investigative report by Japan’s National Diet. In their finding, the unfolding radiological catastrophe is “manmade” and the result of “willful negligence” of government, regulator and industry colluding to protect Tokyo Electric Power Company’s financial interests.  Likewise, here in the US, addressing identical reactor vulnerabilities remain subject to a convoluted corporate-government strategy of “keep away” with public safety as the “monkey in the middle” going back more than four decades and, for now, three nuclear meltdowns later.

In the latest development, by a 3-1 vote issued on August 19, 2015, the majority of the four sitting Commissioners with NRC ruled not to proceed with their own proposed rulemaking and bar public comment and independent expert analyses on the installation of “enhanced” hardened containment vents on 30 U.S. reactors. In the event of a severe nuclear accident, roughly one-third of U.S. atomic power plants currently rely upon a flawed radiation protection barrier system at General Electric (GE) Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors that are essentially identical to the destroyed and permanently closed units at Fukushima Daiichi. The nuclear catastrophe has resulted in widespread radioactive contamination, massive population relocation, severe economic dislocation and mounting costs projected into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

A combination photo made of still images from video footage March 14, 2011, shows the explosion at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex.
A combination photo made of still images from video footage March 14, 2011, shows the explosion of the Unit 3 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex.

Fundamentally at fault, the GE Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactor “pressure suppression containment system” designed for internalizing such a nuclear accident is roughly one-sixth the volumetric size of pressurized water reactor containment designs like Three Mile Island. Under accident conditions, the reactor pressure vessel and the operation of the emergency core cooling system is depressurized into the “drywell” containment component which in turn routes steam, heat, combustible gases and radioactivity into the “wetwell” component where it is supposed to be quenched and scrubbed in a million gallons of water.  The GE design was first identified as too small to contain potential accident conditions in 1972 by Atomic Energy Commission memos. The internal communications would eventually be released years later under the Freedom of Information Act after more GE reactors were granted operating licenses. The memos revealed that the undersized containment system is highly vulnerable to catastrophic failure from over-pressurization in the event of a severe accident. This long recognized chink in GE’s “defense-in-depth” armor was graphically confirmed with the global broadcast of the Fukushima explosions.

This combination photo shows smoke rising from Fukushima Daiichi 1 nuclear reactor after an explosion
This combination photo shows smoke rising from Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 after an explosion ripped apart the reactor building.

Fukushima further demonstrated that “voluntary” GE containment modifications requested by NRC in the early 1990’s are not reliable under real accident conditions.  Most U.S. Mark I operators voluntarily installed a hardened vent on the “wetwell” or “torus” containment component. The same modification was installed in Japanese reactors including Fukushima Daiichi. The voluntary containment modifications in the U.S. were carried out under a NRC regulation (10 CFR 50.59) that avoids licensee disclosures in the public hearing process, claiming that the design changes did not raise significant safety issues. Other than the paper trail, even the NRC inspectors were not aware of the final as-built containment modifications.

Following a review by the NRC Fukushima Lessons Learned Task Force commenced in 2011, the Commission ultimately issued a revised two-phase Order (EA-13-109) on June 6, 2013 for the unreliable containment systems. The Order requires all U.S. GE Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactor operators in Phase 1 to re-install a more “reliable” severe accident capable hardened containment vent on the “wetwell” component by June 2018 to assist in preventing core damage and remain functional during a severe accident.  In Phase 2, operators are to install a severe accident capable hardened vent on the “drywell” component by June 2019, or alternately, provide a severe accident management strategy that precludes the need to vent an accident from the drywell. However, the Commission Order also rejected the collective research and technical recommendation of its lessons learned task force advanced on November 26, 2012. The staff recommendation was to require severe accident capable hardened containment vents be equipped with high-efficiency external filters as added defense-in-depth to trap much of the radiation while releasing to the atmosphere the extreme heat, high pressure and non-compressible explosive gases generated by the nuclear accident. The nuclear industry’s lobby group, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) vehemently opposed the installation of external engineered filters arguing it was unnecessary to add any more assurances other than the original design calculations for a radiation scrubbing effect underwater in the “wetwell” component.

The Commission’s Order, while rejecting the staff’s recommendation to add the engineered filters in vent lines, instructed staff to pursue researching a proposed rulemaking to gather more expert stakeholder input on how radiation filtration strategies would improve public safety and reduce severe accident consequences and costs.

The nuclear industry, under the direction of NEI, began developing the alternate strategy to the Phase 2 installation of a “drywell” containment vent which they describe as Severe Accident Water Addition (SAWA) and Severe Accident Water Management (SAWM).  Under the industry SAWA plan, in the event of a severe accident, water would be introduced into the reactor pressure vessel and/or the drywell containment  control temperatures and cool core debris. If the drywell hardened containment is not installed, flooding up the “drywell” containment requires constant severe accident water management to prevent the simultaneous over-flooding of the “wetwell” that would preclude the use of “wetwell” hardened vent for containment protection as well as crediting the large volume of water’s scrubbing effect for radiation release reduction. Both SAWA and SAWM will require an unspecified number of operator manual actions performed in containment that require a range of apparatus (tools, respirators, keys, etc) as well as shielding from potentially high radiation fields.

The proposed NRC rulemaking to develop regulatory guidance for severe accidents and reconsider filtration strategies was renamed “Containment Protection and Release Reduction” (CPRR) and published as a draft informational document in May 2015. The proposed CPRR rulemaking introduced the staff analyses of four alternatives for consideration by the Commission, the public and industry stakeholders and the NRC’s own independent Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS).

Alternative 1

Alternative 1 adopted the status quo, namely, making the established Order EA-13-109 generically applicable, drop the rulemaking activity and take no further regulatory action. It adopts the Order’s Phase I requirement to install a severe accident capable vent on the “wetwell” containment component without an external engineered filter and instead relying upon the containment water to scrub out radioactivity before a release to the atmosphere. It adopts the NEI approach under Phase 2 to develop alternative capability for severe accident water addition and management to cool reactor core debris should it burn through the reactor vessel and end up on the bottom of the drywell;

Alternative 2

Alternative 2 would pursue the rulemaking to make Order EA-13-109 generically applicable for protection of BWR Mark I and II containments against over-pressurization;

Alternative 3

Alternative 3 would  proceed with a public rulemaking while making Order EA-13-109 generically applicable for improved protection of Mark I and Mark II containment systems with severe accident water addition to the drywell but dropped any further consideration, analysis and public comment for external engineered filters for severe accident capable hardened containment vents;

Alternative 4

Alternative 4 would pursue the rulemaking to protect containment against multiple failure modes and release reduction measures with controlled releases through hardened containment venting systems. This alternative would include making Order EA-13-109 generically applicable and require external water addition in the reactor pressure vessel or the drywell containment component. In addition, licensees would be required to further reduce fission product releases by maximizing wetwell scrubbing capability or   the installation of an engineered filter in severe accident capable containment vent pathway.

The NRC staff’s draft information paper recommended the adoption of Alternative 3 to pursue a rulemaking to make the Order generically applicable without external engineered filters.

What happened when the information paper for draft guidance was sent up to the Commission is alarming. NRC Commissioner Svinicki took the NRC staff information paper and turned it into a notation vote paper for the Commission to decide, leaving no further consultation, no independent expert input even from the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, the public and their independent experts.  Commission Chair Stephen Burns, Commissioner Kristine Svinicki and Commissioner William Ostendorf voted to approve Alternative 1.

Commissioner Jeff Barran’s comments submitted with his minority vote to go forward with the rulemaking are illuminating.

“Consistent with the Commission’s direction, the staff prepared a draft regulatory basis for a containment protection and release reduction (CPRR) rulemaking. The draft regulatory basis was provided to the Commission as an information paper. Prior to the conversion of the information paper to a notation vote paper, the staff planned to issue a Federal Register notice requesting public comment on the draft regulatory basis, ‘hold a public meeting to provide members of the public an opportunity to ask questions and have discussions about the draft CPRR regulatory basis,’ and present the draft regulatory basis to ACRS in order to obtain independent expert feedback on the document. After this public comment period and ACRS review, the staff was scheduled to provide the final regulatory basis to the Commission by September 19, 2015, the proposed rule by September 19, 2016, and the final rule by December 19, 2017.”

“In my view, it is premature for the Commission to consider the draft regulatory basis at this time without the benefit of public comment or ACRS review. I approve the staff’s established plan, based on clear Commission direction, to seek public comment and ACRS review of the draft regulatory basis prior to its submission to the Commission for a notation vote. “

“Furthermore, there is no reason for the Commission to vote on the draft regulatory basis before the ACRS (Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards) has reviewed and provided recommendations on the document. Under the staff’s original schedule, the ACRS planned to hold a subcommittee meeting and provide a letter to the Commission after the staff received and addressed public comments on the draft regulatory basis. The staff should resume this course. Though the staff previously presented the draft results of the rulemaking analysis to the ACRS, this will be the first time the ACRS will examine the draft regulatory basis as a whole and share its thoughts with the Commission. We should wait for the ACRS letter before making substantive decisions about the draft regulatory basis.”  

“This is an important post-Fukushima rulemaking. A wide range of stakeholders will have a variety of perspectives on the four alternatives presented in the draft regulatory basis. We should hear their views and critiques of these alternatives and the staff’s regulatory analysis before taking any alternatives off of the table. Therefore, consistent with existing Commission direction, the staff should carry out its plan to seek public comment and the ACRS review of the draft regulatory basis prior to submission to the Commission in the next few months for a notation vote.”


The Commission’s August 19th majority vote is effectively a gag order on the American public’s opportunity for formal input to fortify the continued operation of GE Mark I and Mark II reactors against the next nuclear catastrophe. Ironically, the international nuclear industry is simultaneously cashing in on the effort to restart Japan’s nuclear power plants where their Nuclear Regulation Authority has ordered state-of-the-art engineered external filters on severe accident capable hardened containment vents as a prerequisite to resume operation.  On August 17, 2015, AREVA issued  a press release announcing that it had just delivered it fourteenth filtered containment vent system to the Hamaoka Unit 4 reactor operated by Chubu Electric Power Company where 70% of the Japanese public no longer trust the industry and its regulator  and remain opposed to any further nuclear power  operations.


August 19, 2015 Commission Notation Vote Sheet

AEC memo September 25, 1972

“voluntary” retrofits


November 26, 2012, SECY 2012-0157

“Proposed rulemaking”

AREVA press release

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