December 5, 2013
INTERVIEW/ Allison Macfarlane: Waste disposal plan key to nuclear power option, says NRC chief in U.S.
WASHINGTON--Countries that are set on generating nuclear power would be well advised to think first about how they
intend to dispose of the nuclear waste.
So says Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"I encourage countries that are just embarking on nuclear power to make sure that they have a plan for disposal, before they turn on the
reactor," Macfarlane said, noting that Japan has been grappling with this issue for many years.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Asahi Shimbun, she discussed the NRC's continuing efforts to craft regulations to ensure the safety of
the nuclear power industry in the United States.
Macfarlane also discussed changes in nuclear energy regulation since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011,
prospects for international cooperation on nuclear energy and the NRC's ability to remain independent while maintaining a functional
relationship with the industry.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
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Question: In Japan, all nuclear reactors are offline now. And
some politicians, like former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, say it is irresponsible to restart the nuclear power plants without having a plan for final disposal of nuclear waste. What do you
think of that argument?
Answer: I encourage countries that are just embarking on nuclear
power to make sure that they have a plan for disposal, before they turn on the reactor.
Because, I think if you look at the history and experience of countries that didn't have that plan in place, which is most countries with
nuclear power reactors, it hasn't been an easy path to a solution.
Q: How about in the case of Japan?
A: I think Japan has been wrestling with this question for a long
Q: On the issue of final disposal, the Blue Ribbon Commission on
America’s Nuclear Future reviewed the policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and recommended a new plan. It proposed that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) start
a new initiative to explore the creation of one or more multinational spent fuel storage disposal facilities. As a member of the blue ribbon panel, could you comment on that?
A: I think the Blue Ribbon Commission did a good job. The idea of
multinational repositories has been thought about for many, many years, and not succeeded. That's not to say it can't, but it's not so easy. It's not easy to get one, just in one's own
Q: But you still believe it is an option that should be further
A: I think all options should be on the table.
Q: As stated in the Blue Ribbon Commission report, this kind of
attempt should be explored with active U.S.
participation. Is that correct?
A: It depends. I think what will probably work better, just my
own personal view, is a regional repository, not a global one.
Q: Like in Asia or other regions?
A: Some place. I'm not sure where. Perhaps several smaller
countries that share a nuclear plant might get together.
Q: How about Northeast Asia?
A: Maybe. But, it might be difficult. I don't know.
Q: With regard to plutonium, the Japanese government, as you
know, maintains its policy of spent fuel reprocessing in spite of its excess plutonium stockpiles. What do you think of the continuity of this policy, from a global and regional nonproliferation
A: It's up to Japan what to do. I just would remind people that
reprocessing is a management choice in dealing with spent fuel. It's not a solution to the waste problem because you still need a repository. France is the prime example. They are in the process,
right now, of a national debate on the siting of a repository.
Q: How about from the view of nonproliferation?
A: You know, separated plutonium is certainly an issue, in terms
of nonproliferation. It's a concern. It's a concern for state and non-state actors.
Q: Personally, I believe that Japan will never try to develop
nuclear bombs. But is it still a concern?
A: One also always has to be concerned about non-state actors.
Japan is a country that has experienced terrorist attacks by Aum Shinrikyo cult members. We aren't immune to these kinds of situations.
Q: With regard to final disposal issues, what is your perspective
on sites for final disposal of nuclear waste? Do you think a geological repository is the safest avenue?
A: I think that geologic repositories
are the solution to the problem of high-level waste, yes.
A: We don't have a lot of good
alternatives. This is an international consensus; this isn't anything surprising. The alternatives that have been discussed--shoot it out into outer space? There's a one-word
response to that: "Challenger."
The Challenger Space Shuttle experienced a catastrophic explosion on the way up. We don't want that.
Put it in deep seabeds, international waters? There are international treaties against dumping radioactive material in international water, so
that's not going to happen.
So, what else are you going to do with it? This idea of transmutation, you still end up with radionuclides that have half-lives on the order
of 30 years. That means you need hundreds of years of storage.
You can't eliminate the material, so you need to remove it from the environment near humans. And the best way to do that is with some
deep-mined geologic repository.
Let me tell you my personal view on this. We have a choice. It's very simple. We either leave the stuff above ground
for hundreds of years, or we put it below ground.
If we leave it above ground, we have absolutely no guarantees that somebody is going to be there and change it and take care of it for 10,000
years. So, there is a high likelihood that it will get into the environment at some point in time.
If we put it underground, we have reduced the uncertainty that that will happen. That's our choice.
Q: OK. But, you can't say that a geological repository is safe,
A: You probably can't say that anything is 100 percent safe.
Drinking a bottle of water is not 100 percent safe. But, you can say it's "safer" than leaving spent nuclear fuel above ground forever.
Q: With regard to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear accident, do you
think that the response by the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to this crisis has been appropriate?
A: You know, this was a terrible accident and nobody would wish
it on anybody. And I know that much of the Japanese energy has been focused on dealing with this. We meet fairly regularly with the Nuclear Regulation Authority people, and with Chairman
(Shunichi) Tanaka. They're just one year old, and they've had to develop a whole new set of standards. So, we're providing assistance, when asked.
Q: What lessons has the NRC learned from the Fukushima
A: For the United States, there were a number of them. One was
that you have to be prepared for more than one reactor core to melt down at once. Also, you have to be prepared for prolonged station blackout--the loss of offsite power. You have to be prepared
for, and definitely update, your understanding of natural hazards.
Q: The NRC issued a Mitigation Strategies Order on March 12,
2012. It required all U.S. nuclear power plants to implement strategies that will allow them to cope without their permanent electrical power sources for an indefinite period. What does
indefinite mean in this case?
A: Really "indefinite" means indefinite. Just go on a long time.
They should be able to survive and be able to cool the core and bring the temperatures down, and maintain safety.
Q: In Japan, in terms of a battery system, it is just 24 hours
per backup battery, and diesel generators just one week.
The NRC is trying to come up with a new ruling about Station Black Out (SBO) mitigation. Eventually, it will require plants to have sufficient
procedures, strategies and equipment to cope with a loss of power for an indefinite period. Do you have a specific timeline for that rule?
A: You know, our staff is working on the rule-making and so that
hasn't been finalized yet. So, we'll see what they come up with. That rule-making won't be done until 2016.
There is no universal requirement for the operating life for batteries or diesel generators. It is site-specific, based in part on
the equipment on-site at a particular plant. For example, some reactors have special station blackout diesel generators which would
automatically be engaged in the event of a loss of offsite power, thereby bypassing the need for batteries. The requirement for battery life is tied to the plant's ability to restore power. This
is one of the reasons we are revising the SBO rule as part of our post-Fukushima efforts. The revised rule will still have some site-specific requirements, but will be more universal.
Q: Still, to deal with a prolonged SBO, this rule-making is very
important, isn't it?
A: Yes. But, the orders we made are also very important: the SBO
mitigating strategies order. Because that means everybody has to comply with that order. They don't get a choice. And the rule-making will codify what's in the order and make it apply to all
plants in the future.
Q: How about multiple unit failures? What is your strategy in
terms of emergency preparedness? What new measures, or strategies, do you have in place to deal with such contingencies?
A: For emergency preparedness? We are in the process of doing a
rule-making on that, so I don't know that there's anything specific to tell you about that yet, but it's something that we are working on.
Q: What do you think makes a difference between a one unit
accident and a multi-unit accident?
A: Obviously, multi-unit accidents draw your attention to
multiple places. And, if you're going to have radioactive releases from a multi-unit accident, it can increase the release.
Q: Do you mean that a broader public health strategy is
A: We'll be considering these issues. I don't want to say much
because it hasn't come up to the Commission yet.
Q: Is there still something you could learn from the accident, or
A: I think there's a lot to learn. For instance, I think under
the auspices of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) based in Paris, there's going to be an international team trying to get all the information that comes out of the melted reactor cores, to try to
understand how the accident progressed and how quickly it progressed, et cetera. So there is an international team that's working with the JNRA, on this, as well as with TEPCO, et cetera.
Q: Clearly, you regard information about that kind of accident
sequence as very important?
A: Certainly. It's important to
understand how it progresses, how quickly it progresses, what happens when. It helps us understand, and refine our models of accident progress, so that we can regulate better.
Q: Do you think that the decommissioning of these damaged plants
could be done more efficiently through a more internationalized effort? That would allow the gathering of a higher level and wider range of knowledge and technologies, don't you agree?
A: My understanding is there is more of an international effort
now. There's this International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID) now in Japan. And I know that the IAEA is now working with TEPCO to measure radiation in the water, et
cetera, off of the coast.
In general, you know, I'm a researcher, and one should try to understand all the possible solutions out there. I think the United States has a fair bit of experience dealing in cleanup, because the nuclear weapons complex made a big mess. So, the Department of Energy has a lot of experience
cleaning up radioactively contaminated sites. We would be happy to provide any additional help.
Q: Can you use or apply knowledge and experience you have gained
from the military?
A: Yes, from the nuclear weapons complex. Because some of these
sites, the Hanford site which used to produce plutonium for atomic bombs, then the Savannah River site, the Rocky Flats ... they are also facilities to produce nuclear materials for nuclear
weapons. You know, we have cleaned up some of these sites. Rocky Flats was entirely decommissioned. And, of course, there's Three Mile Island. We did remove the fuel from that reactor.
Q: Well, the next question is also about emergency preparedness.
In the United States, before a plant is licensed to operate, it is said the NRC must have "reasonable assurance" that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the event of a
radiological emergency. And also, the NRC needs to confirm that the area response organization and licensees can effectively implement those emergency plans. This seems to be very strict in terms
of protecting public health. In the case of Japan, regulations set by Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority do not require a full-blown emergency preparedness drill before licensing.
A: Oh, really? I didn't know. It's not required to exercise
Q: They provide guidelines, and the local government decides
about emergency preparedness. So no full-scale exercise is required for the operation of nuclear power plants.
A: We are practicing emergency preparedness, but we're also
practicing what happens at the plant.
What we regulate is within the plant boundaries, and then any actual emergency preparedness activity, where the population is told to evacuate
or not, that is simulated without actual evacuations. The order to evacuate would be given by local authorities, although we would be consulting with them. So, I just want to be clear about that.
Also, when an accident event goes outside the plant boundary, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assumes our government's response authority, again with our assistance.
Q: And, in the case of the NRC ruling, without a plan and without
a successful exercise, full-size exercise, you cannot give a license to the utilities?
A: Yeah, I don't think so. They are required to do this. And they
are evaluated and we evaluate ourselves, too. Everybody's performance is evaluated.
Q: How about a restart after routine checks and refueling? If
they do not do the full-scale exercise, even after two years, you do not permit them to restart?
A: Plants are required to have an emergency exercise every two
years, whether they are generating power or are offline for any reason. Whether an exercise would be required for a restart depends on the reason the facility was shut down, and whether or not
the circumstances of the shutdown affected the status of onsite and offsite emergency preparedness. If both the NRC and FEMA continue to have reasonable assurance that the licensee, as well as
the offsite authorities, can implement their plans and provide adequate protective actions in the event of an emergency, there would be no need to conduct a special emergency exercise.
Q: So, that is a big difference between Japan and the United
Q: And, the question is, don't you think that this kind of NRC
model is preferable for safety, public safety?
A: We think we have a good model.
Q: Other countries should follow suit?
A: We think we have a good model. We know other countries do it
differently. You know, nobody has to do everything exactly like we do it.
Q: Why is the requirement for the radiological emergency radius
so strict? Is it due to public concern, or because of political reasons?
A: I don't know that I can answer that completely, without doing
a thorough analysis. But, you know, the regulations changed, and I'm not a real scholar on this issue. But, the regulations changed after Three Mile Island, and there were significant new
requirements on emergency preparedness, both for us and for the licensees, and so that experience really made a lot of changes. We made a lot of changes, maybe
too many all at once.
Q: I am interested in how you and your organization maintain
independence from the nuclear industry.
A: Ah, yes, that's a good, important, question.
Q: By the way, I had an interview with the former Chairman, Dr.
Gregory Jaczko, last February, and he told me that there was tremendous pressure from the industry. For example, he mentioned discussions or questions, something like that, and he termed it as
So, I'm wondering whether you feel the same kind of pressure from the industry, and how you cope with that.
A: I'll say, right at the outset, that I think one of the most
valuable assets that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has is its independence, its independence from everybody.
You know, we have one mission, and I am convinced that our staff here is focused on that mission, and that is to make sure that the facilities
operate safely and securely and that we protect public health.
And industry has views, and the public has views, and I personally try to hear them all. In terms of how to remain independent, you need the
backing of the government. The government has to give you that authority, and they have to give you the resources that you need to carry out your job, and they need to give you the support, and
Q: What is important for gaining public trust?
A: We try to do things as transparently
as possible. We publish almost everything we write, and make it available to the public. We have a lot of public meetings.
Some of them have lasted four hours, five hours. Hundreds of members of the public have shown up, and we've made sure that everybody gets a
chance to say what they want to say.
And we also have meetings. I meet with industry and the public. So, for instance, a couple weeks ago we were up visiting the Seabrook Nuclear
Power Plant, and the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant. Seabrook is in New Hampshire and Pilgrim is in Massachusetts. And, at both of those facilities, I had the opportunity to walk around the site. I
had the opportunity to interact with the management at the facility, hear from them.
But, I also made sure that there was time to meet with the local public interest groups afterward, and also the local elected officials and
state representatives. So those meetings are very important. I try to make sure I hear from everybody.
It's important for our staff to have a working relationship with the industry. We need to hear their concerns, and we need to be able to talk with them, when we have concerns. Sometimes they'll submit an application for something or a license amendment, and we
have a lot of questions. Maybe it's not complete.
We will tell them. You can pick up the phone and say, "This is not working." So, you need that kind of relationship.
We don't lose track of the fact that we are the regulator, but folks here really have an eye on the mission.
Q: There are resident inspectors at each plant, right?
A: We have at least two resident
inspectors at each plant, and they're always watching. And they don't have a friendly relationship with the industry. We have a strict policy for personal relationships with licensees.
They are not allowed to have lunch with the industry people or to go to their Christmas party, or to do anything like that. They have to stay separate. They also move periodically. They are not
allowed to stay in one place for more than seven years. These resident inspectors are also an important resource to gain public trust.
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Allison Macfarlane was sworn in as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on July 9, 2012. She is an expert on nuclear waste
issues and holds a doctorate in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s of science degree in geology from the University of Rochester. Prior to beginning her term
as the NRC’s chairman, Macfarlane was an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
(This interview was conducted by Fumihiko Yoshida, deputy director of The Asahi Shimbun's Editorial Board, and Shiro Namekata, a
Washington-based correspondent of The Asahi Shimbun.)