By Ayesha Rascoe and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. nuclear regulators are launching additional inspections and considering a 90-day review of the country's 104 nuclear reactors in the wake of Japan's nuclear crisis, officials said on Monday.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission met on Monday to discuss how to respond to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant, which was crippled by a powerful March 11 earthquake.
The officials also acknowledged progress was being made in getting power to the plant that could help cool spent fuel and prevent further radiation from being released into the atmosphere.
"I would say optimistically that things appear to be on the verge of stabilizing," said Bill Borchardt, the head of operations at the NRC.
President Barack Obama last week requested a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear plants while maintaining his support for atomic energy, which supplies about 20 percent of U.S. electricity.
Borchardt said efforts were underway. "We are beginning very soon a 90-day effort that will evaluate all the currently available information from the Japanese event."
Public concern in the United States has grown about New York's Indian Point nuclear plant, located on the banks of the Hudson River where 20 million people live within a 50 mile radius.
New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said on Friday the NRC should not relicense the plant, owned by Entergy Corp, without a comprehensive seismic study and health and safety risk assessment.
Lawmakers and anti-nuclear activists have also called for safety measures in quake-prone California, where the Pacific Gas & Electric-owned Diablo Canyon plant and the Edison International-owned San Onofre plant lie near faults.
The NRC will vote on the 90-day review and longer-term actions, perhaps later on Monday.
NOTHING SHOULD BE SACROSANCT
The agency is preparing enhanced inspections to verify the ability of U.S. plants to cope with severe accidents including loss of safety systems and power as well as flooding, which do not require a vote.
"We would evaluate whether or not some regulatory action ... would be required in order to require the licensees to take some actions that they have not already done," Borchardt said.
He added that the 90-day effort would evaluate the reactors' ability to protect against natural disasters, station blackouts, severe accidents and spent fuel accidents. A report would be filed after 30 days to the commission and would be independent of industry efforts, Borchardt said.
"The idea is to just get a quick snapshot of the regulatory response and the condition of the U.S. fleet based on whatever information we have available," Borchardt said.
Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said any review of the nation's nuclear plants should be broad and include previous NRC decisions to extend the lives of older installations similar to Fukushima.
"We would expect everything needs to be on the table," Lyman said in a press call on Sunday. "Nothing should be sacrosanct, including license renewals, even those that have been granted."
Some environmentalists have complained that the NRC is too beholden to nuclear power companies.
Kristine Svinicki, an NRC commissioner, said efforts to ensure safety at U.S. plants must be based on science.
"Some may characterize that our faith in this technology is shaken, but nuclear safety has not been and cannot be a matter of faith. It is and must continue to be a matter of fact," she said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Eileen O'Grady in Houston; Editing by Paul Simao)