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 Summer 2011

Can It Happen Here?

On March 11, when a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, our team of nuclear power experts began examining information coming from Japan to help American journalists, policy makers, and the general public understand that a potentially catastrophic situation was unfolding.

In the weeks that followed, UCS fielded thousands of calls from reporters, held daily press briefings, and continuously updated our website with new information on what was happening in Japan and its implications for nuclear power in this country. One question we have been asked with regularity is, Could it happen here? Based on our nearly 40 years of experience in evaluating nuclear power plant safety, the short answer is yes. 

A Recipe for Disaster

The situation in Japan has brought renewed attention to several serious shortcomings in U.S. nuclear power plant safety and oversight that have been evident for years. Each of these flaws, as discussed below, increases the risk of a catastrophic accident. 

Insufficient backup power. While no U.S. nuclear reactors would ever be hit by the one-two punch of an earthquake and tsunami, the result at the Fukushima Daiichi plant—a “station blackout,” or loss of power from both the electrical grid and backup diesel generators—could similarly occur at U.S. plants in areas subject to earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, or even falling trees.

Nuclear Near-Misses
Close to Home

Serious problems at U.S. reactors are happening too frequently for a mature industry.

On March 17, UCS released the first in an annual series of reports assessing the safety of the U.S. nuclear power industry. The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010: A Brighter Spotlight Needed analyzed 14 special inspections the NRC performed last year when equipment problems or security shortcomings increased the chances of a reactor core meltdown by a factor of 10 or more.

Many of these “near-misses” occurred because reactor owners and the NRC tolerated known safety problems. For example, both of the reactors at the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland shut down when rainwater leaked in through the roof and dripped onto electrical equipment. As author David Lochbaum explained to reporters, “Workers had noted numerous leaks across many, many months prior to this event, but management always deferred repairs. After all, the roof only leaked when it rained.”

The report also highlights instances in which the NRC demonstrated it can be an effective regulator, catching safety problems before they could develop into potential disasters. At the Oconee plant in South Carolina, for example, owners fixed a failed safety system component at one reactor but felt confident the other two reactors could not have the same problem; the NRC challenged this argument until the owners tested the other reactors and found the component had failed there as well.

For example, the combination of a tornado and high summer temperatures nearly caused a station blackout at Ohio’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant in 1998. After the tornado cut transmission lines linking the plant to the grid, diesel generators provided power for about 26 hours before overheating. Had workers not restored the plant’s primary electrical power just before the generators failed, they would have had only four hours of emergency battery backup power to fix the problem before the plant’s cooling systems would have stopped and its nuclear fuel begun to overheat. (The Fukushima Daiichi plant had eight-hour batteries—better than 90 percent of U.S. reactors—and even that was not enough time to avoid a meltdown there.)

Vulnerable spent fuel pools. Spent fuel rods are still highly radioactive and generate a lot of heat, so they must be cooled in water-filled pools for at least five years before they can be safely transferred to more permanent storage. When nuclear plants were originally designed, owners assumed their spent fuel would be shipped off-site for disposal. But because the United States has failed to construct a permanent nuclear waste repository, plant owners have packed the spent fuel pools more densely than originally designed and filled them to capacity.

If the flow of cooling water into the pools is interrupted for a prolonged period of time, as it was at the Fukushima plant, the fuel will begin to overheat and melt, just as in a reactor core meltdown. The more fuel in the pool, the faster the water will evaporate and allow the fuel to overheat. With more fuel, there is also more radioactivity that can be released into the environment. And unlike fuel in the reactor core, which is reinforced with steel and concrete, fuel in spent fuel pools is often protected from the elements (and possible attack) only by “sheet metal siding like that in a Sears storage shed,” says UCS Nuclear Safety Project Director David Lochbaum. This was the case at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Nuclear plant owners should move spent fuel from overcrowded and unprotected pools to dry casks (above), which are more secure and reduce the risk of overheating.

Shortsighted evacuation planning. On March 12, the day after the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government evacuated more than 75,000 residents within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and told another 136,000 living 12 to 18 miles away to stay in their homes. It was not until April 22 when the government advised residents in five towns and villages outside the initial evacuation zone to leave. The U.S. government instructed its citizens to stay at least 50 miles away from the plant.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) emergency preparedness plan for nuclear accidents, as explained by Chairman Gregory Jaczko on March 31, is to evacuate people living within 10 miles of a stricken plant and to monitor food supply contamination within 50 miles. The agency would expand these zones if necessary, but UCS Senior Scientist Edwin Lyman questions the wisdom of this approach: “The notion that you could spontaneously expand an evacuation zone in some of the more densely populated areas of the country and expect that that could be carried out efficiently really strains credulity.”

Making Nuclear Power Plants Safer

While UCS research has shown that other clean energy resources could meet America’s electricity needs more cheaply than building new nuclear power plants (see the sidebar), the current fleet of 104 U.S. reactors will undoubtedly continue to play a role in our electricity system for years to come. It is therefore imperative that the nuclear industry, the NRC (which oversees the industry), Congress (which oversees the NRC), and the White House give safety and security the serious attention they deserve—and have not yet consistently received.

UCS presented the following recommendations (and others) to Congress in the weeks following the Japanese accident: 

  • Require plant owners to develop procedures that will compensate for a prolonged loss of electric power. Current policy assumes a Fukushima-scale disaster will not happen here—that workers will restore power before emergency batteries are depleted. The industry should prepare for a station blackout.
  • Renewables Are Ready

    Despite what lobbyists say, the United States doesn’t need more nuclear or coal power.

    According to our 2009 report Climate 2030: A National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy, the United States could meet its projected electricity demand for the next 20 years or more without building any new nuclear reactors or coal-fired power plants. Significantly increasing the efficiency of U.S. appliances, buildings, and power plants and expanding the use of renewable energy would be less expensive than building nuclear reactors or coal plants. By 2030, these strategies could reduce coal use and U.S. power plant carbon emissions by about 85 percent and lower Americans’ annual energy costs by an average of $900 per household.

    Require plant owners to move older spent fuel to dry storage. After five years in storage pools, spent fuel rods can be transferred to dry casks made of steel and concrete, which are more secure than pools. Transferring rods out of pools would also lower the risk of the remaining rods overheating and reduce the amount of radioactivity in the pools.
  • Revise emergency plans to ensure everyone at risk from radiation exposure—not just those within the 10-mile evacuation zone—will be protected. In addition to expanding the evacuation zone and the distribution of potassium iodide tablets (which prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland), federal authorities should ensure there are sufficient resources to get people the help they need if a reactor accident overlaps with a tornado, earthquake, or other natural disaster.

When the NRC announced plans to examine its policies in response to the Japanese disaster, Lochbaum was not optimistic. “If the past three decades have demonstrated anything, it’s that the NRC will likely come up with a solid action plan to address problems revealed at Fukushima, but will be glacially slow in implementing those identified safety upgrades,” he told a Senate subcommittee. The NRC must do more than chart a course to a safer place—it must ensure that we actually reach that destination quickly.

Learn more about our efforts to improve nuclear power safety.