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U.S. Response to the Japanese Nuclear Crisis


On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake occurred off the east coast of Honshu, Japan, leading to a tsunami. The earthquake and tsunami caused crippled at least four of the six units of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Attempts to restore power to emergency equipment were impeded by the disaster. As a result, normal and emergency cooling mechanisms for units 1, 2, and 3 were all compromised, and both the primary and secondary power supplies, responsible for cooling the system, failed.

In an attempt to prevent simultaneous meltdowns at several disabled reactors, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the plant, took emergency measures to cool the fuel. These measures included injecting sea water and boric acid into the reactor vessels of the three units. Despite these efforts, the fuel in the reactor cores became partially exposed. The exposed fuel overheated the water, leading to a buildup of hydrogen gas in units 1 and 3. Despite attempts to ventilate the primary containments to relieve pressure, hydrogen explosions occurred in both units and damaged the secondary containments.

On May 12, TEPCO officials confirmed that unit 1 at Fukushima suffered a full meltdown. The following week, the Japanese company admitted that reactor fuel had also melted at units 2 and 3.

Due to ongoing radiation releases at the plants and uncertainty about future risks, the Japanese government advised residents within a 12-mile radius of the reactor site to evacuate the area. Meanwhile the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) advised all U.S citizens to evacuate within a 50-mile radius of the site. By day 32 of the crisis, the deteriorating events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station were classified a category 7 by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This classification put the crisis on par with Chernobyl.

April 17, 2011, TEPCO issued a plan to stabilize the nuclear reactors and the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and mitigate radioactive releases. Three months after the earthquake, radiation leaks were still being detected, and it will be several decades before the spent fuel have cooled enough to be removed.

While no deaths have been officially attributed to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear incident, nearly 80,000 people have been evacuated from within 20 kilometers of the plant due to fear of radiation. Radiation is accumulating in marine life on the Japanese Coast above legal limits for food, which can and will threaten Japan's fishing industry and food supply. The World Health Organization has said that the sale of food from areas near the plant should be banned by the Japanese Government because radiation in food is more dangerous than radioactive particles in the air because of accumulation in the human body. A range of Japanese industries have been cited for potential radiation concerns including milk, eggs, meat, spinach, and other leafy vegetables. In fact, Japan recently banned the shipment of green tea leaves grown in four prefectures around Tokyo, a substantial distance from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. In addition, more than 10,000 cows were left behind when the evacuation took place, causing many of them to die of starvation.

Despite the severity of the ongoing disaster in Japan and a global chill toward nuclear development best represented by Germany's announcement to retire its 17 nuclear reactors by 2022, the official U.S. response has been to stay the nuclear course.

Administrative Response

Following the nuclear disaster in Japan, the Obama administration reassured the American public of the safety of America's nuclear fleet despite the striking technical similarities between some of the U.S. reactors and the troubled Japanese reactors and brushed aside calls for a halt on nuclear power activities in the U.S. In fact, the administration is still seeking to expand federal subsidies for new nuclear reactor development.

Read the letter to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees (PDF) urging them to oppose additional appropriations for nuclear reactor loan guarantees in the Fiscal Year 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations bill.

Take action: Urge President Obama to end nuclear subsidies.

Regulatory Response

In response to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission initiated an immediate 90-day review of the U.S. nuclear fleet, which will be followed by a more comprehensive six-month review.

On July 12, 2011 the near-term task force released its recommendations to improve reactor safety in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

The report identifies 7 immediate steps the NRC should take to help shore-up reactor vulnerabilities similar to those identified at the Japanese plants. The recommendations cover issues including the loss of all A/C electrical power at a reactor (also called “station blackout”), reviews of seismic and flooding hazards, emergency equipment and plant staff training.

Take action: Tell the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Don't delay new safety regulations.

On October 12, the commission finally directed the agency’s staff to begin immediately implementing seven safety recommendations. In the three months between the release of the report and the decision to proceed with implementation, four commissioners made attempts to delay the process and the release of documents into the public domain.

View the full report on the efforts to delay improvements in nuclear reactor safety.

On May 2, Public Citizen held an open event with NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko. In addition to a discussion on the safety review process, Chairman Jaczko fielded questions from the public and media regarding specific safety concerns and implications of the Japanese nuclear crisis on U.S. energy policy.

Watch NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko at Public Citizen.

Congressional Response

Nuclear proponents in Congress, unimpressed by the nuclear disaster in Japan, have criticized NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko's decision to recommend a 50-mile evacuation zone for American citizens in Japan and have continued to call for an expansion of nuclear power for the United States.

One lawmaker who has fully grasped the implications of the crisis in Japan, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), has been the most vocal advocate for improving nuclear safety standards. On March 28, Markey introduced the Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act of 2011 (H.R.1242).

The bill aims to ensure that nuclear power plants are able to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis or any other event that may pose a major threat to such a facility. The legislation requires that each such plant can withstand a loss of the primary operating power source for a minimum of 14 days and a loss of the primary backup operating power source for a minimum of 72 hours. The bill requires that spent nuclear fuel rods be moved to dry cask storage within one year of the rods being qualified for such storage. The bill also contains specifications about containment ventilation and cooling. Finally, the bill would mandate that all loan guarantees for advanced nuclear energy facilities consider the earthquake of 2011 to assess the risk of the project.

View Rep. Markey's report: Fukushima Fallout: Regulatory Loopholes at U.S. Nuclear Plants

Take Action: Urge your Representative to Support the Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act

Response by Public Citizen and Nuclear Opponents

Nuclear opponents have gone a step beyond Markey's proposed legislation and have called for suspension of all licensing activity. On April 14, 2011, Public Citizen and 44 of its allies petition the NRC to suspend nuclear reactor licensing at 21 proposed nuclear reactor projects in 15 states until the NRC completes a thorough post-Fukushima reactor crisis examination comparable to the process set up in the wake of the serious, though less severe, 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. View the NRC petition (PDF).

In addition, on February 15, 2012, Public Citizen, along with 37 other organizations, filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), calling on it to expand the radius for emergency planning from 10 miles to 25 miles, establish a new 50-mile emergency response zone and take other measures to address the inadequacies in regulations governing emergency planning. View the NRC petition (PDF).

Regarding the agency's review, nuclear opponents including Public Citizen were discouraged that the NRC excluded public participation and limited the scope of the review to compliance with existing safety regulations.

Looking forward to the long-term review, we are calling for an independent review to supplement the NRC investigation, and stakeholder engagement not only throughout the process, but to assist in determining the scope of the process. And we urge the following technical concerns be addressed in the review:

  • The unanticipated compounding of effects of simultaneous accidents at multiple co-located reactor units, including spent fuel pools;
  • Unanticipated risks of spent fuel pool accidents, including explosions;
  • Frequency of severe accidents and explosions;
  • Inadequacy of safety systems to respond to long-duration accidents;
  • Nuclear crisis management with contaminated control and turbine buildings that have lost power;
  • Unanticipated aggravating effects of some emergency measures; and
  • Health effects and costs of severe accidents.

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