One year ago on Sunday, an earthquake off the coast of Japan and the resulting tsunami triggered a month-long partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. In the days leading up to the anniversary of the crisis, advocates and opponents of nuclear power are squaring off in a fight over the lessons U.S. regulators should learn from the disaster.
But both sides are making policy recommendations without a full accounting of the facts. The most definitive, independent study of the disaster isn’t due to be released for months.
In one corner, and at one press conference this week, advocates at the industry-funded Nuclear Energy Institute were eager to highlight the “diverse and flexible” response operators of America’s 104 reactors are taking to improve their disaster preparedness. NEI is touting the $100 million the industry is investing in some 300 additional emergency pumps, generators, and batteries that it says could be used to keep the pools that spent fuel rods are kept in from overheating like they did in Japan.
An initiative approving the investments was unanimously approved by the U.S. industry’s chief nuclear officers last month. The FLEX strategy, as NEI calls it, commits American companies operating nuclear energy facilities to buy or enter into contract for additional plant-specific emergency equipment to be kept in and around the fuel containment structures by the end of March.
“If nuclear power plants lose power from the grid and other sources, the additional portable equipment will provide power and water to maintain key safety functions — reactor core cooling, used fuel pool cooling and containment integrity,” said Tony Pietrangelo, NEI’s senior vice president, in a press release.
In the other corner, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group generally opposed to nuclear energy, is warning that industry might be rushing to implement ineffective safeguards in an effort to fend off more stringent prescriptions by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“The NRC needs to tell the industry in no uncertain terms that it is purchasing FLEX equipment at its own risk,” the report says. UCS wants regulators to study the effectiveness of NEI’s plan versus that of French nuclear regulators, who require the use of more expensive — and potentially more durable — “hard core” emergency equipment.
In the U.S, requiring additional safety equipment is one of 11 post-Fukushima rules changes that were recommended by an agency task force in July. Under consideration are rules to increase monitoring of flooding and seismic risks, to include radiation monitoring in emergency plans, and to clarify what it called the agency’s “patchwork” of voluntary guidelines and rules that govern severe, unexpected, Fukushima-type disasters.
Others are weighing in with their own reports pegged to the Fukushima anniversary, including nuclear energy opponents at Greenpeace and supporters at the Heritage Foundation. In its report, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says that the disaster was preventable, a claim disputed by official Japanese government studies.
Meanwhile, the most in-depth, independent investigation of the crisis isn’t due to be released until this summer. After the Japanese government issued an interim report in December that left the ultimate responsibility for the disaster ambiguous, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a think tank founded by former newspaper editor and respected intellectual Yoichi Funabashi, set to work.
His team of 30 university professors, lawyers, and journalists has received no money from the government and claims to be funded by businesses and individuals not directly connected to the crisis. They’ve spent over six months interviewing more than 300 people, including top regulators and former Prime Minister Nato Kan.
And next year, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation is expected to issue its first global and independent assessment of the Japanese nuclear disaster. It will give an analysis of radiation dosages among citizens who lived nearby the Daiichi reactors and forecast health risks for them in the coming decades, according to UNSCEAR Chairman Wolfgang Weiss.
While neither of these larger, independent studies is likely to settle the debate over what regulators here should learn from Fukushima, an early preview of Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation’s report suggests that it is likely to lend support for the more stringent, cohesive policies supported by UCS.
Regulators and the operator “were astonishingly unprepared, at almost all levels, for the complex nuclear disaster that started with an earthquake and tsunami,” the authors wrote in its final chapter, which was published last week in the academic journal Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist. Given this finding and the increasing proliferation of reactors, they predict that “risks associated with the peaceful use of nuclear energy are certain to increase.”
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