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U.S. Nuclear Safety Check

How Safe Are U.S. Nuclear Power Plants One Year After Fukushima?

By Sam Schrader   

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the Fukushima meltdown.

Witnessing the effects of the meltdown and the aftermath is a sobering reminder of just how dangerous nuclear power can be when proper precautions are not taken.

For many Americans, the biggest questions that arose from this catastrophe were simple ones: could a meltdown like Fukushima happen at an American nuclear power plant? Did the lessons of Fukushima make our nuclear power plants any safer?

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently released a report appraising US nuclear power and safety. The findings were rather unsettling.

While it’s highly unlikely any of the American reactors could ever be subjected to brutal earthquake-tsunami combinations, the reality is that our reactors are very similar in construct to Fukushima’s. This means that the Rube Goldberg-like series of malfunctions in the safety design that caused the meltdown could absolutely happen to one of our reactors.

The UCS notes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) leapt into action following Fukushima by advising all Americans within a 50-mile radius of Fukushima to relocate. The commission also founded a task force to aid in identifying potential safety flaws in American reactors.

When the NRC’s task force released its findings in July 2011, the first recommendation of twelve was to simply clarify regulatory requirements of “beyond design basis” accidents, which is to say accidents so caustic the reactor cannot brace itself due to its design.

This was the first recommendation, but the NRC decided to put this at the very bottom of its priority list. While the commission stated it will put all of the task force’s recommendations into action, the NRC’s decision to drop the first one to the bottom is troubling.

In addition to the task force’s recommendations (the NRC is still debating on how best to implement its findings), the nuclear industry proposed what they call the FLEX program. What this program entails is essentially buying more emergency materials rather than reinforcing existing equipment. Buying more generators and pumps is a far cheaper solution, but potentially more hazardous as these materials might not live up to the NRC’s higher safety standards.

Some plants have already started enacting the FLEX program. All of this could make it more difficult for the NRC to impose these standards if the plants have already acted on their own safety measures.

You can read the entire UCS report here.

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