Crisis at Japanese nuclear complex prompts calls for U.S. review

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 14, 2011 

WASHINGTON — As Japan copes with one crisis after another at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, a review of federal records indicates that nearly a quarter of America's nuclear reactors in 13 states share the same design of the ill-fated Japanese reactors.

The plants, called Mark I Boiling Water Reactors, were designed by General Electric. GE, which is donating $5 million to Japan for its relief effort, said Monday it was too early to assess what produced the problems at the complex.

On Monday, the Japanese blasts prompted calls for an immediate review of the 104 nuclear plants now operating in the United States, including many aging facilities, to see if they could withstand a gut-punch by nature that would kill the electricity, cripple the cooling system and threaten a nuclear meltdown.

The Japanese crisis, and the potential scrutiny of America's reactors, comes as the nuclear industry seemingly had won a new lease on life. After decades as an orphan technology shuttered by the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, rising concerns about global warming, the need to curb carbon pollution and a quest for more electric production to fuel economic expansion buoyed nuclear fortunes.

GOP lawmakers in the House of Representatives even proposed tripling U.S. nuclear production by building 200 new plants in the next 19 years.

Now, that all seems at risk.

With the Fukushima complex still making headlines, White House officials sought to assure the public that there's nothing to worry about.

"The U.S. power plants are designed to very high standards for earthquake effects," said Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). "All our plants are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena, like earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis."

Five of the six reactors at the Japanese plant, which suffered a second explosion Monday, use the same General Electric reactor that are at 23 nuclear plants in North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Vermont, according to a database maintained by the NRC.

All but two of them began operating in the 1970s.

"These need to be examined," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an anti-nuclear organization. "When the reactor designs are the same, and the reactor's ages are the same, comparisons seem more than appropriate."

On Capitol Hill, some are calling for a halt to further nuclear development in the U.S.

Rep. Ed. Markey of Massachusetts, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, called for a moratorium on new reactors in seismically active areas until a new safety review is completed. In addition, Markey joined three other Democrats in asking the House GOP to conduct a hearing on the safety of U.S. nuclear plants.

Independent Senator Joe Liebermann of Connecticut, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said it was time to "quickly put the brakes on" the U.S. industry.

But in a speech on the Senate floor, Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander came to the nuclear industry's defense: "Without nuclear power, it is hard to imagine how the United States could produce enough cheap, reliable clean electricity to keep our economy moving and to keep our jobs from going overseas."

Any reactor design today faced with the combination of an earthquake and a tsunami would likely be in a similar situation as the plant in Japan, said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who directs the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety program. Reactors are built to withstand an earthquake or a tsunami, but not both on the same day, he said: "We'll have to go back and revisit that and see if we can do better."

On a different front, Lochbaum said U.S. reactors generally have less backup battery power than Japan's. Most have four hours of battery power, though some have eight hours: "We're light compared to what Japan had and Japan came up short, which would suggest we're even more vulnerable than they are."

Richard Caperton, an energy policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, which is closely aligned with the Obama administration, said it's too early to draw lessons from Japan because it's not fully known what happened.

"The Japanese situation reminds us there's always a danger with a nuclear reactor and when we build new nuclear reactors we need to realize bad things can happen to them," he said.

Despite, Three Mile Island, he said the U.S. nuclear industry has "justifiably earned a reputation for safety."

For example, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, new nuclear plants have to be built to withstand a plane flying into them. Other risks also have to be taken into account, such as climate change that could bring more frequent flooding, he said.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an advocacy group for the U.S. nuclear industry, said that U.S. and international experts would study the Japan accidents and incorporate the lessons learned in the design of U.S. reactors.

Beyond the safety issues, the growth of the nuclear industry already has been hampered by economics given their high price tag.

States such as South Carolina and Georgia have passed laws to encourage new plants by allowing ratepayers to be assessed for the cost of construction before the plants are built. Banks, however, have been unwilling to give utilities loans for new reactors unless the federal government guarantees it will repay the borrowings if the utility can't.

President Barack Obama, who describes nuclear power as "clean energy," last month proposed $36 billion in loan guarantees to help power companies build more plants.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said nuclear power "remains a part of the president's overall energy plan."

"When he talks about reaching a clean energy standard, it's a vital part of that," Carney said.

The NRC Monday said it was monitoring events in Japan from its headquarters operations center in Rockville, Md., on a 24-hour basis.

The NRC's Jaczko said there is a "very low probability that there's any possibility of harmful radiation levels in the United States or in Hawaii or any other U.S. territories" as a result of the situation in Japan.

(Tish Wells also contributed to this article. )

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