Safety upgrades at US nuke plants worried UN agency

Tue Mar 22, 2011 9:35pm GMT

* Some U.S. reactors slow to act on safety upgrades

* Group says all U.S. reactors must be proactive on safety

* Report may boost calls against relicensing old reactors

By Tom Doggett

WASHINGTON, March 22 (Reuters) - Two days before the Japanese earthquake that struck the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the U.N. atomic watchdog issued a report sounding an alarm about the safety at some older U.S. nuclear plants.

The report from the International Atomic Energy Agency questioned whether the utilities licensed to run older U.S. nuclear reactors were doing enough to upgrade plant safety.

"The licensee actions to upgrade the quality and reliability of the operating facilities to strive for their safety enhancement appears to be less than in many other countries where aging facilities are in operation," the agency, known as the IAEA, said in its March 9 report that looked at how America's nuclear plants are regulated at the request of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The safety of older U.S. nuclear reactors is a pressing issue following the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, whose first of six reactors went online in 1971.

After the Japanese earthquake, some lawmakers and environmentalists are calling for a halt in renewing the licenses of U.S. reactors beyond their initial 40-year life spans.

The IAEA findings will appeal to "the folks who don't find nuclear power to be the answer," said Christine Tezak, energy and environmental analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. "Will opponents to nuclear power point them out? Yes."

The NRC said it would continue to review the findings.

"We cannot unilaterally impose new requirements unless there is a solid technical base for doing so," said NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.

President Barack Obama has since ordered the NRC to conduct a comprehensive review of the safety at all 104 reactors operating in the United States in response to the Japanese crisis.

An IAEA team of 22 nuclear experts, including an official from Japan's nuclear regulatory agency serving as the team's deputy leader, visited two U.S. nuclear plants in October to assess America's regulatory structure against international safety standards.

The group's final report, which attracted little attention, gave an overall thumbs up on how U.S. nuclear power plants were regulated.

However, the group said some owners of aging nuclear plants took "voluntary proactive measures" to improve safety, such as replacing buried pipes, installing new backup diesel generators and modernizing main control rooms.

Other plant operators, which the report did not name, had a more relaxed attitude.

"Some other plants may not upgrade the quality and reliability of their equipment as long as they can demonstrate that a plant is in compliance with the regulations," the report said.

The IAEA's suggestion: "The NRC should consider possible measures to ensure that all licensees are more proactive in upgrading the systems, structures and components of their facilities with the objective to improve safety margins."

The group also suggested that the NRC make it clear to plant operators "that they have responsibility to take their own initiatives to improve safety whenever reasonably practicable."

(Editing by Russell Blinch and Cynthia Osterman)

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