U.S. Examines Its Own Nuclear Power in Wake of Japan Crisis

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Beaver Valley Power Station nuclear power plant near Shippingport, Penn. Photo: United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Public Domain

While an international team of scientists and engineers struggles to contain a growing nuclear crisis in Japan, American lawmakers turned their attention to the vulnerability of the United States’ own reactors Wednesday.

Testifying before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) head Gregory Jaczko both asserted that nuclear power plants in the United States are well-equipped to handle natural disasters similar to those that struck Japan.

“The American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly,” Chu said.

Jaczko said each of the more than 100 nuclear power plants in the United States is required to demonstrate that it can withstand a disaster equal in magnitude to the most severe disaster ever recorded in the area. The NRC commissioner said he is not concerned about the safety of America’s reactors, but that the commission would continue to follow the situation closely and look for ways in which safety can be improved.

“Our focus is always on keeping plants in this country safe and secure,” Jaczko said. “As this immediate crisis in Japan comes to an end, we will look at whatever information we can gain from the event, and see if there are changes we need to make to our own system.”

Japan’s nuclear crisis began after the fourth-largest earthquake in recorded history – measuring at 9.0 on the Richter scale – struck just off the nation’s coast last week. A massive tsunami followed, devastating nearby coastal regions, which include several nuclear power plants.

Jaczko said sudden power outages and backup power generators damaged by the tsunami prevented several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant from being adequately cooled. In the days since, radiation levels have increased rapidly and officials are scrambling to prevent the release of dangerous levels of radiation into the atmosphere.

While Japanese officials have tried to downplay the risks, U.S. government officials have urged American citizens to evacuate to at least 50 miles away from the plant.

“The NRC made a recommendation, based on the available information that we have, that for a comparable situation in the United States, we would recommend evacuation to a much larger radius than is currently being provided in Japan,” Jaczko said.

Chu said he believed the events in Japan “actually appear to be more serious than Three Mile Island,” the Pennsylvania power plant that experienced a partial meltdown in 1979. Chu and Jaczko declined to speculate about what a worst-case scenario at the Fukushima Daiichi plant would look like, but Jaczko said there was no threat to America.

According to Chu, the U.S. government will continue to operate existing nuclear plants and move forward on plans to open new plants while information on Japan’s crisis is gathered and reviewed. Several lawmakers said that America should look more closely at whether nuclear power is safe enough to be included in the U.S.’s future energy production plans.

“It should not take a nuclear meltdown to make us face reality,” said Henry Waxman (D-CA), the committee’s top Democrat. “We urgently need a new energy policy.”

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