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On Fukushima Anniversary, Nuclear Safety in U.S. Still Not Making the Grade

Statement of Allison Fisher, Outreach Director, Public Citizen’s Energy Program

Despite the lessons learned from the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, the state of nuclear safety in the U.S. is still not making the grade.

Today marks the fourth year since the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began. In Japan, about 120,000 people are still unable to return to their homes. The cost of the disaster is now predicted to be $105 billion, double what the Japanese authorities predicted at the end of 2011.

Remarkably, in the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has yet to require nuclear power plant operators to complete implementation of a single one of the post-Fukushima safety upgrades recommended by the agency’s own staff. Not a single one. The agency’s sluggishness belies the potentially lethal consequences of delaying safety upgrades for our nation’s 99 operating reactors.

In July 2011, a task force of NRC staff, after reviewing the Fukushima accident, provided the commission with 12 recommendations to enhance U.S. reactor safety. These include reevaluating flooding and seismic risks, improving evacuation procedures and emergency response, mitigating blackout effects and installing venting systems and equipment to monitor water levels in spent fuel pools.

To date, only four recommendations are on track for implementation within the next couple of years. Additional studies have been ordered for two of the recommendations and the remaining six recommendations have received no action by the NRC.

Moreover, some operating reactors are not even in compliance with existing safety regulations. Incidents like those at the Fort Calhoun power plant in Nebraska and the Diablo Canyon plant in California reveal that regulators are not detecting safety issues or are knowingly allowing plants to operate with safety deficiencies.

In April 2011, the Fort Calhoun reactor went offline for a routine refueling. During the outage, a bevy of safety issues were discovered that kept the plant out of operation for two and half years. Many of the issues had existed since the construction of the plant more than 50 years ago.

Correspondence from the NRC that U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer released at a recent hearing revealed that critical equipment was replaced at Diablo Canyon in 2008 without evaluating whether that equipment could withstand a major earthquake and loss of cooling water within the reactor – a test required in the plant’s license. The NRC learned of this oversight in 2011 but issued no fines or violation notices to the operator.

Delaying the lessons learned from the tragedy in Japan, failing to identify safety lapses and weak enforcement of current regulations are putting the safety of the American people at risk every day. Nearly 40 percent of Americans – or about 120 million people – live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant. If a nuclear disaster of the scope of Fukushima were to occur tomorrow, the blame for the ensuing destruction would rest squarely on the NRC’s shoulders.

It is vital that the NRC enact lessons from the nuclear disaster in Japan to prevent a catastrophe at home and without further delay, improve nuclear reactor safety.

View this release on our press page.