ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Japanese officials say one of the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is in worse shape than they realized. The unit one reactor doesn't appear to be holding water. That means its core has probably sustained more damage than they'd thought. That news came today as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a hearing just outside Washington.
As NPR's Richard Harris reports, the U.S. is trying to learn from the troubles in Japan.
RICHARD HARRIS: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff made only passing reference to the newly discovered water leak at the Japanese reactor. Bill Borchardt, NRC's executive director for operations, told the commissioners that overall, the conditions at the Japanese reactors and spent fuel pools are more or less under control.
Mr. BILL BORCHARDT (Nuclear Regulatory Commission): While they change, they're not changing at such a rapid pace that it's causing any kind of undue concern.
HARRIS: The commission is in the midst of a rapid 90-day review to see whether U.S. reactors are vulnerable to catastrophic failure based on what they've learned so far from Japan. Commission staffer Charlie Miller said the review, so far, has not identified any issue that undermines their confidence in U.S. reactors.
That said a lot of the discussion today dealt with the adequacy of plans to deal with a severe accident such as a major fire, dam burst upstream or a power blackout that lasts for days. They're all rare events that are above and beyond what plants are designed to withstand.
Miller talked a lot about these so-called severe accident management guidelines.
Mr. CHARLIE MILLER (Nuclear Regulatory Commission): SAMGs, as they're known, were implemented as a voluntary initiative by the industry in the 1990s, and they're not covered by our regulations. Consequently, we do not evaluate them as part of the agency's routine reactor oversight process.
HARRIS: So since the NRC doesn't send inspectors in to check on these safety plans, the commission has instead sent around a notice asking companies for an update. They're still waiting word back on that.
But Martin Virgilio from the NRC says an informal survey did uncover some irregularities.
Mr. MARTIN VIRGILIO (Nuclear Regulatory Commission): And none of the observations pose a significant safety issue, but there were observations that, in some cases, equipment that was relied on would not start, that it had not been maintained.
HARRIS: And in some cases, there were inadequate procedures and training. Power companies told the NRC these problems are all fixed now, but that led NRC Commissioner George Apostokalis(ph) to wonder whether voluntary guidelines for severe accidents are really the best way to go.
Mr. GEORGE APOSTOLAKIS (Commissioner, Nuclear Regulatory Commission): I went back and looked at the station blackout rule, and that's paradise.
HARRIS: Paradise for the industry to comply with, he said, since they just have to submit a report showing that they have a credible plan, and that's that. No inspections, no follow-ups.
Mr. APOSTOLAKIS: So the licensee has tremendous freedom to do all these things, maybe supported by some statistical analysis. And then they will say, well, we went to Sears and bought a portable diesel, and everybody says we're happy.
HARRIS: Apostokalis acknowledged that's a bit of an exaggeration, but still, surely, this is an area where the commission can do better.
NRC executive Bill Borchardt said you can't possibly devise an ironclad regulation for everything, because not everything can be put to the test.
Mr. BORCHARDT: It's an issue commissions have struggled with since the first day of the NRC.
HARRIS: It won't be resolved during this hurry-up 90-day review, but it is likely to end up on the table again when the NRC steps back later this year to take a broader look at how to improve domestic nuclear safety procedures.
Richard Harris, NPR News.