U.S. nuclear power plants may need to upgrade their flood protection plans to avoid a crisis like Japan has faced since a massive earthquake unleashed a tsunami, the top U.S. nuclear regulator said Monday.
Severe flooding from the March 11 tsunami is likely to emerge as a "dominant cause" of the disaster in Japan, said Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko.
While nuclear plants have always been required to have detailed flood protection plans, Jaczko said the Japanese crisis will cause regulators to review whether current requirements are adequate for the 104 U.S. nuclear reactors.
"I suspect we will look at external flood risk" in two safety reviews initiated after the Japan incident, Jaczko said at a forum sponsored by Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group. A 90-day review is due this summer, with a longer-term report expected by the end of the year.
The NRC cited a nuclear plant in Nebraska last year for having an inadequate flood safety plan. The flooding problem at the Fort Calhoun plant, on the banks of the Missouri River, has since been addressed, although the plant is one of three U.S. nuclear plants federal regulators have deemed in need of increased oversight because of safety problems or unplanned shutdowns.
Omaha Public Power District, which operates the Nebraska plant, told regulators it found two small openings in the wall of an auxiliary building on March 31, but said they were well above water levels along the Missouri River. The openings were plugged the next day.
The NRC has asked the plant operator to do more analysis and will follow up with additional inspections, spokeswoman Lara Uselding said Monday.
Fort Calhoun sits about 20 miles north of Omaha, on the west bank of the Missouri River.
At Monday's forum, Jaczko rejected a request by Public Citizen founder Ralph Nader to conduct mass evacuation drills at all 104 U.S. reactors.
Nader said the Indian Point nuclear plant, about 35 miles north of New York City, would pose "possibly the most difficult evacuation process in U.S. history" in the event of a nuclear accident or sabotage.
Jaczko said he recognized potential evacuation problems at Indian Point and other plants near major cities, but said conducting "mass evacuations on a trial basis" would be difficult and even counter-productive. The NRC works with emergency responders at all nuclear plants, Jaczko said.