"Japan Meltdown: Could It Happen Here?"

March 16, 2011

The aging fleet of US nuclear power reactors have some technological similarities to the reactors failing in Japan. Could similar loss-of-cooling events happen at some US reactors — whether caused by earthquake, tsunami, terrorist attack, electrical outage, flooding, equipment failure, or some other problem? Moreover, the possible regulatory, market, and institutional failures may be another parallel.

The surest answers may lie partly in a detailed examination of nuclear power facilities near you. Another set of answers may result from skeptical questioning of official pronouncements.

One of the 104 commercial nuclear power reactors in the U.S. may be close to your media market. And that number does not include plutonium production reactors, Army and Navy reactors, research reactors, and decommissioned reactors.

Roughly half of the U.S. commercial power reactors use the boiling water design that was in use at the stricken Fukushima plant in Japan. Boiling water has a number of inherent safety advantages, but also some safety drawbacks.

Whatever the design, it must safely withstand hazards that may include earthquake or tsunami, but also many more remote possibilities — such as the oft-mentioned impact of a commercial jetliner. There is always some risk left over — whether because of cost ceilings or the fact that nobody has imagined a possible hazard. For example, the San Onofre nuclear plant in California, officials state reassuringly, was built to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake and a 25-foot tsunami. But the quake that devastated Japan was rated 9.0, and the nuclear plant failure there was caused partly by the tsunami washing over a seawall.

Allegations have already surfaced that safety assurances from the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company were overstated.

Little confidence was generated March 14, when the Obama administration's Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko faced the regular White House press briefing. His bland and vague assurances came across as evasions of reporters' pointed and specific questions about nuclear safety at US reactors.

Many of the key safety issues related to US nukes have been covered extensively by the news media during the decades since the Three Mile Island partial meltdown of 1979. An example is the Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo, CA, which was the target of protests in 1981 over precisely the issue of earthquake safety. It is sited close to four faults (including the San Andreas) and is built to withstand a magnitude 7.5 earthquake.

Recent events may offer a reason to revisit some of the old issues of nuclear safety — especially as the Fukushima crisis in Japan shows old assumptions and standard practices may not have been enough to protect the public.