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After Fukushima, Are We Safe with All the Aging Reactors in the United States?

Ask a Scientist - March 2012

K. Smith of Boothbay, ME, asks “Given what we learned from the Fukushima disaster, are we safe with all the aging reactors in the United States? Are there more safety precautions the owners of these reactors should be taking, and what should the rest of us do to protect ourselves?" and is answered by Global Security Senior Staff Scientist Edwin Lyman, Ph.D.

The devastating disaster in Fukushima, Japan nearly one year ago showed us that, while the likelihood of a nuclear power plant accident is low, its consequences can be grave. The truth is, an accident like the one at the Fukushima Daiiachi nuclear plant could happen here. An equipment malfunction, a fire, a natural disaster or terrorist attack, or even human error could, separately or in combination, lead to a nuclear crisis.

Some proponents of new, smaller reactor designs claim that these plants will be “inherently” safer. But we have learned the hard way that real safety comes only from careful planning, regulation, and enforcement. That’s why we at the Union of Concerned Scientists have offered a series of recommendations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for changes we need to make nuclear reactors in the United States safer.

First of all, the NRC does not currently require U.S. reactor owners to plan for or to be able to cope with a severe accident such as the one that occurred in Japan. For instance, we believe these reactor owners need to develop and thoroughly test emergency procedures for situations when no electrical power is available for an extended period. Fukushima demonstrated clearly the disaster than can ensue when a nuclear plant is deprived of power for an extended period of time, as happened after the tsunami there. We are urging significantly more stringent requirements that all U.S. reactors be designed to safely cope with prolonged loss of electrical power.

Similarly, the NRC should require reactor owners to develop emergency plans for a larger area than the current 10-mile radius around each U.S. reactor now required. The areas we propose would be based on a scientific assessment of the site, including issues like population density, prevailing weather patterns, and other site-specific factors.

Finally, the Fukushima crisis illustrated the dangers of keeping spent fuel in storage pools when the plant loses the power needed to cool these pools. The safety and security risks associated with spent fuel can be significant reduced by transferring the fuel from pools to dry casks once it is cool enough (i.e. five years after removal from the reactor). This change will entail a significant capital investment, but the Fukushima disaster showed that the costs of inaction can be far greater.

As we document in our new report U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year After Fukushima,  none of these recommendations—or the recommendations from the six-member task force the NRC appointed to examine the Fukushima accident—have yet been implemented at U.S. reactors as the first anniversary of the tragedy nears. While we understand that it will take some time to develop the right approach, we don’t want to see a repeat of what happened after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. In that instance, it took nearly 10 years for the NRC to fully implement new regulations for reactor owners to cope with the aftermath of a terrorist aircraft attack—and even then, the final measures were insufficient.

It is the NRC’s job to make sure all Americans are adequately protected and we will continue to work to hold them to that standard. These common-sense changes, among others, would go far to making U.S. nuclear reactors safer. You can help by staying informed about this important issue and vocally supporting efforts to put safety first when it comes to nuclear power in the United States .

Dr. Edwin Lyman is an internationally recognized expert on nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism as well as nuclear power safety and security. Before joining UCS, Lyman was president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on nuclear proliferation. He earned a doctorate degree in physics from Cornell University in 1992.

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