In the two months since the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic breakdown during an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, what has the United States learned about nuclear safety? How are regulators working to prevent a similar disaster at one of America’s 104 nuclear power plants, about a quarter of which share the same design as Fukushima Daiichi?
This was the topic of discussion at a hearing by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee yesterday—and for the second time since the disaster in Japan, it summoned all five commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to appear and answer questions. The results weren’t exactly comforting, and demonstrated there’s still a long way to go towards a “safe” nuclear power infrastructure in the United States—if that’s even possible.
Spent fuel rods posed a grave threat at Fukushima, as Christian Parenti outlined here. They are packed with radioactive uranium, and are very unstable. They are also generally not well protected. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, when asked by Senator Tom Carper about the spent fuel pools in the United States, admitted that “we have not given that enough attention.”
Jaczko also said that until Fukushima, the NRC had never really considered the possibility that multiple reactors or even multiple plants could fail at the same time, due to some sort of large-scale natural disaster or other event. “Our traditional approach has always been to assume a single incident at a single reactor,” he said. “Clearly Fukushima-Daiichi showed us that we have to consider the possibility of multiple units at a single site, perhaps multiple spent fuel pools being affected at the same time.”
Commissioners also had no answers about how to fix backup power systems that continue to cool nuclear material in the event of a major power outage. The batteries at Fukushima ran for only eight hours—not nearly long enough. In the United States, the standard length is only four hours. “This is something we have to look into and take action on,” said commissioner George Apostolakis. “I’m not sure what that action would be.”
Amidst these less-than-inspiring answers, the NRC commissioners tried to downplay the possibility of similar events happening here anyhow. “The likelihood of something like this happening in the United States is very, very small,” said Jaczko. Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the committee, asked commissioner William Magwood to list four or five areas of concern following Fukushima, and he couldn’t provide any. He responded instead that “you can’t predict events that will happen in the future. You have to be able to recover from whatever happens.”