U.S. Nuke Industry's 'It Can't Happen Here' Attitude Must Go, Says Union of Concerned Scientists

In a forceful, March 16 statement on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientist to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Chief Scientist Dr. Edwin Lyman states:

“The NRC and the industry cannot hide this time behind the ‘it can’t happen here’ excuse. We have 23 plants of the same design. We have plants that are just as old. We have had station blackouts.”

Offering its deepest sympathies to the people of Japan, and then going on to cite the US Nuclear Power industry’s (perceived) arrogant attitude following the explosion at Chernobyl (the industry claim then was that our plants are designed differently), the statement calls for a thorough investigation into “whether the risk of an American Fukushima is really as low as the NRC and the industry claim.”

The statement expresses clear skepticism about the state of preparedness here in the U.S. Dr. Lyman continues in clear and forceful language:

“We should not hesitate to ask ourselves whether we are doing all that we can do to prevent a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster from happening here.”

Chernobyl area as seen from the Russian space station Mir in 1997 (51°22′50″N 30°06′59″E / 51.380567°N 30.116272°E / 51.380567; 30.116272)

Using the historical examples of Three Mile Island, Hurricane Katrina, and also the BP oil spill (in which the US was unprepared to respond adequately), and one “close call” (at the Davis-Besse plant), the statement offers a sobering, summary assertion:

“We have a regulatory system that is not clearly superior to that of the Japanese.” (emphasis added)

Dr. Lyman also referred to the 9/11 air attacks on our infrastructure for which we were utterly unprepared. The statement refers to the possibility of terrorists attacks triggering a nuclear crisis several times.

“I would ask the Committee to imagine for a moment that the crisis unfolding at Fukushima is taking place in their home states, and to consider whether this is something that Americans should ever have to endure under any circumstances.”   – Dr. Edwin Lynman, Chief Scientist, Global Security Program, UCS

Following the 3 Mile Island disaster (1979), the Nuclear Power Industry adopted sweeping regulatory changes to address critical weaknesses in these power systems. Similarly, in a concluding section, the UCS statement lists 4 “vulnerabilities” that it feels need to be addressed, urgently:

1] Two of the Fukushima plant’s Mark I boiling-water reactors and are now open to the air following explosions that breached the buildings around them.   The U.S. has 31 boiling-water reactors with similarly situated spent fuel pools that are far more densely packed than those at Fukushima and hence could pose far higher risks if damaged.  The U.S. should act quickly to remove spent fuel from these pools and place them in dry storage casks to reduce the heat load and radioactive inventories of the pools.

2] The Fukushima accident was triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, but the direct cause appears to have been a loss of both off-site and on-site power supplies (a situation known as a station blackout).  Other such “initiating events” include a terrorist attack. Currently, the NRC requires U.S. plants to have the capability to cope with a station blackout for no more than four to eight hours.  We need to re-evaluate the adequacy of these requirements and the effectiveness of their implementation.

3] Although U.S. nuclear plants have severe accident management plans, these plans are not required by regulations and do not have to be evaluated by the NRC and tested for their effectiveness. These plans will have to be re-evaluated in light of Fukushima to judge whether they can be realistically carried out. In the meantime, the NRC should place a far greater emphasis on preventing accidents and terrorist attacks rather than trying to control them afterward.

4] Elevated levels of radiation have already been detected more than one hundred miles from the release site.  Currently, our emergency preparedness measures (including evacuation planning and potassium iodide distribution) are limited to a 10-mile radius. Whether this distance should be increased will need to be reevaluated, as will the workability of emergency plans in the context of natural disasters or terrorist attack.

[note: the above list of vulnerabilities has been edited and shortened]

To read the entire statement, visit U.S. Senate Briefing on Nuclear Pant Crisis in Japan and Implications for the United States

The Union of Concerned Scientists is neither pro nor anti-nuclear power, but has served as a nuclear power safety and security watchdog for over 40 years.

Top Photo: Garthhh ; The Susquehanna Steam Electric Station, a boiling water reactor. The reactors are located inside the rectangular containment buildings towards the front of the cooling towers.

MIR (space station) photo: NASA

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