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Calling existing nuclear safety rules “patchwork,” a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) task force wants tighter regulations and safety upgrades for the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors.

The proposed measures would bring the biggest safety reforms for the industry since the NRC upgraded its rules after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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The recommendations are the result of a 90-day assessment of the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan. An earthquake and a tsunami there devastated cooling systems, leading to explosions, three reactor-core meltdowns and ongoing releases of radiation.

While the NRC task force concluded that a similar sequence of events “is unlikely to occur in the United States,” it still advised new rules aimed at preventing radiation releases after natural disasters.

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The report highlights several proposed rules:
• A requirement that nuclear power companies evaluate earthquake and flood hazards every 10 years and follow up with mitigation of any risks uncovered
• More extensive disaster training for severe accidents
• Enhanced plans and equipment to deal with a 72-hour loss of reactor cooling power.

The proposed rules look at “redefining the level of protection that is regarded as adequate” in the case of low-probability — but very dangerous — events, said the report, written by senior NRC staff.

The five NRC commissioners will discuss the report at a July 19 meeting. But NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner cautioned there will be no immediate action. Many of the proposed rules — even if agreed upon by the commissioners — will require public input and formal federal rulemaking.

The task force did call for swifter action on 12 recommendations. Among those: inspecting for earthquake and flood risks, protecting emergency equipment from disasters, and hardening exhaust vents in older GE reactors.

The spent fuel pools that store tons of still-radioactive fuel at U.S. nuclear plants also drew the task force’s attention. At Fukushima, such pools lost cooling water and emitted radiation, and Japanese operators spent long periods with little or no information on the pools’ status. The task force said U.S. nuclear plant operators should upgrade their pool monitoring and provide for emergency water pumping in case of emergency.

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