ATLANTA (AP) -- The country's top nuclear safety regulator warned power companies against complacency Thursday and said the agency must push ahead with new rules prompted by a nuclear crisis in Japan while also resolving long-running issues involving fire protection and a new analysis of earthquake risks.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Gregory Jaczko made the remarks at a meeting of industry leaders after what has been a turbulent year for the nuclear power sector. In March, damage from an earthquake and tsunami caused nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan. The facility was rocked by explosions and spewed radiation into the environment, causing widespread evacuations.
"The Fukushima accident is clearly one of the most significant events in the history of nuclear power," Jaczko said in prepared remarks. "It is critical that we take prompt, decisive and effective action to make the needed safety changes," he said.
Natural disasters have also recently struck nuclear plants in the United States, although none triggered a crisis.
The North Anna plant in Virginia shut down when an Aug. 23 earthquake caused peak ground movement about twice the level for which the plant was designed. No major damage has been identified. Jaczko told reporters that the NRC was close to deciding whether that plant can restart. He said he had not yet seen the final recommendations from the NRC staff and that he could not comment further.
Other U.S. reactors were threatened by flooding in the Midwest and contended with tornado damage in the Southeast.
Jaczko singled out four nuclear plants cited for safety trouble and added that the NRC has conducted more special inspections in the past year than at any time in recent memory.
"These developments, of course, are concerning for the specific plants involved, but we all should be on guard to the possibility that they could be indicative of broader issues for the industry," Jaczko said in his address to the Atlanta-based Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. His speech was closed to the public at the request of the trade group.
He also urged the nuclear power industry to resolve long-running issues over fire protection standards and added the agency will soon start work on an updated analysis of earthquake hazards for the central and eastern United States.
Jaczko told reporters that the NRC will make a decision in the coming months on whether to approve the latest design of Westinghouse Electric Co.'s AP1000 nuclear reactor. Once that reactor is approved, the commissioners could then decide whether to allow the Atlanta-based Southern Co. to build two AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta. SCANA Corp. is also seeking permission to build two AP1000 reactors at Plant Summer in Jenkinsville, S.C.
If approved, those projects would become the first nuclear plants to win permission to build in a generation.
Following the disaster in Japan, Jaczko said he hopes the commission will examine whether to plan for wider evacuation zones outside nuclear plants in case of a crisis. Currently, power companies and government officials only drill for a 10-mile evacuation area. During the crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi, the NRCrecommended that Americans within 50 miles of the plant evacuate.
Jaczko said evacuating people in a 50-mile radius around the plant could be done when questioned on whether it was possible since it is not practiced.
"It certainly could be done better if it was exercised and planned," he said.