As Japan’s natural disaster has unfolded into a worst-case-scenario nuclear crisis over the past week, countries around the world have turned inward toward their own nuclear policies. Germany has temporarily shut down all of its plants built before 1980. Switzerland has suspended the approval process for three new ones. The European Union is testing all 143 reactors on the continent for earthquake and flood risk, age and ability to counter meltdowns. And China, which has some of the world’s most ambitious nuclear energy plans, announced Wednesday that it will suspend its program.
So what does the U.S. — home to 104 reactors at 65 plants in 31 states, many of them of the same design as the Fukushima Daiichi — plan to do?
“We will certainly do an extensive lessons-learned as we gather more and more information on the events in Japan and apply those to our regulatory system and the review of all 104 operating reactors in this country,” Bill Borchardt, executive director of operations at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission promised in a Senate hearing on Wednesday. “But based on the information that we have at this moment, there’s not a sufficient basis to take any immediate action.”
That line — and the repeated insistence that what happened in Japan couldn’t happen here because the U.S. permitting process ensures safety — didn’t go over well with the senators. The claim also looked particularly weak when, Thursday morning, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a new report (long planned for publication this week) examining nuclear plant safety in the U.S. just last year.
The report analyzed the cases of 14 “near-misses,” all of which author David Lochbaum said could have been averted had earlier warnings been heeded and not discounted or ignored. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission audits only about 5 percent of activities at U.S. plants each year, according to the report, and as a result, “its spotlight is more like a strobe light — providing brief, narrow glimpses into plant conditions.”
The UCS doesn’t advocate for or against nuclear power but rather monitors the industry and its regulators to ensure safety for a power source many argue is essential to a low-carbon economy. The very nature of nuclear power sets it apart from its coal and natural gas counterparts. It has, in essence, no margin of error, a point Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (whose district is home to the problematic Yankee Nuclear Power Plant) tried to make at Wednesday’s hearing.
"We seem particularly incapable," he said, "of accepting the possibility of high-risk, low-probably events, whether they come in the form of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf oil spill or the Japanese crisis."
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“Unthinkable, unthinkable, unthinkable,” Sanders said of each of those events, “until the day after it happens. And the problem with nuclear power is that it cannot be just 99.99 percent safe. Can’t be. Because it’s potential toxicity if, God forbid, we ever have an accident that brings far-ranging and serious consequences, as we’re seeing in Japan right now.”
The senators and scientists at the UCS (who have been holding a daily tele-briefing on Japan that’s drawn a hundred journalists a day) seem particularly troubled by the cognitive dissonance of suggesting that such a disaster could never happen here, when clearly the Japanese felt the same way — and it did.
The NRC, for example, hasn’t required reactors to implement measures to protect against aircraft attacks like the one on Sept. 11, said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the UCS.
“What they have required utilities to do is develop plans to deal with the aftermath of that accident, and that's considered sufficient to deal with the potential terrorist threat from an aircraft,” Lyman said. “I think we need to re-evaluate the realism of those plans in light of what we’re seeing here, because they involve the reliance on heroic actions on the part of workers and possibly life-or-death decisions to protect larger-scale releases that may simply not be realistic given what we’re seeing.”
After-the-fact containment plans don’t work well, as Japan has demonstrated, when the risk of radiation is too high for workers to carry them out.
Lyman was also particularly incensed that the U.S. has urged citizens to stay 50 miles away from the troubled reactor in Japan, when domestic regulations require plants to develop evacuation plans for only a 10-mile radius. Several major metropolitan areas in the U.S., including New York City, are within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.
“The level of complacency here at home is appalling,” Lyman said Thursday. “When I heard the chairman of the NRC saying that ‘we’re just doing the same in Japan as we do here at home,’ I couldn’t believe he was saying that. This contradiction is going to need to be resolved. I suspect their answer is ‘our plants are much safer; we’re not going to have to worry about it.’
“But the point is if you wait until after an event occurs to say, ‘We’re going to have an unplanned spontaneous evacuation of from 10-50 miles to include large metropolitan areas,’ we’re going to have panic and chaos. They’re going to have to get their act together.”