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What the nuclear crisis in Japan means for U.S. nuclear policy

The tragic events unfolding in Japan demand a reexamination of U.S. nuclear policy.  While stocks in nuclear plummet and nuclear industry lobbyists scramble on Capitol Hill to shore up support for massive federal subsidies to kick-start the stagnate industry, concerns regarding the existing aging fleet are surfacing and should be heeded.

Case: Vermont Yankee

Last year, due to a series of radioactive tritium leaks, state legislators voted to close the 38-year-old facility when its license expires in 2012. Despite this referendum, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) decided one day before the earthquake hit Japan to pursue the license renewal. According to nuclear safety expert Arnie Gundersen, concerns about the reactor design – almost identical to the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan – go back to 1972.

Here’s Gundersen on Democracy Now!: “The NRC in 1972 said we never should have licensed this containment. And in 1985, the NRC said they thought it was about a 90 percent chance that in a severe accident this containment would fail. So, that we’re seeing it at Fukushima is an indication that this is a weak link. It’s this Mark I, General Electric Mark I, containment. And we have – essentially one-quarter of all of the nuclear reactors in the United States, 23 out of 104, are of this identical design.”

Emergency Response in a Nuclear Disaster

The federal government’s nuclear accident response plan – the Nuclear/Radiological Incident Annex to the National Response Plan – says that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “is responsible for coordinating Federal operations within the United States to prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.” Yet the plan also indicates that, depending on the type of nuclear or radiological incident, the coordinating agency may instead be the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) or the U.S. Coast Guard.

Documents recently released under a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that the EPA, the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is part of DHS, are not in agreement about which federal agency would lead efforts to respond and clean up a large-scale radiation release caused by an accident at or attack on a nuclear reactor. Remember the confusion after the BP disaster over who was in charge? Imagine that scenario unfolding at a nuclear accident.

Additionally, concerns that potassium iodide, the pill taken after a nuclear disaster that can help prevent the cancer-causing effects of radiation poisoning, have not been distributed to those living within 20 miles of a U.S. nuclear facility. A 2002 law instructs the government to help states build bigger stocks of the pill for those living near a nuclear facility. However, a loophole allows the White House to forgo distribution if officials find a better way to prevent cancer than administering the pill. After years of delays, the Bush administration dropped the plan in 2007, saying evacuations would be a better alternative. So we haven’t been stockpiling iodine. Today, The Wall Street Journal reported that supplies of potassium iodide, are running low at some manufacturers, as Americans seek protection amid fears that radiation from Japan could head to the U.S.

Lack of Industry Accountability

The Price-Anderson Act is a key piece of legislation for the nuclear industry. The consequences of an attack or an accident at a nuclear power plant are so staggering that insurance companies won’t fully insure them. Congress passed a law in 1957, the Price-Anderson Act, that established a taxpayer-backed insurance scheme for nuclear power.

This law limits the amount of insurance nuclear power plant owners must carry and caps their liability in the event of a catastrophic accident or attack at dollar amounts that fall far, far short of the actual financial consequences that could be incurred. Even nuclear power executives acknowledge that their industry is financially dependent on Price-Anderson to shield nuclear power from free market forces. Congress reauthorized the Price-Anderson subsidy for another 20 years as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. That means that taxpayers would be on the hook for billions of dollars if a nuclear catastrophe happened here.

Case: Vogtle

Meanwhile the flagship project of the so-called nuclear renaissance located in Georgia still faces scrutiny over a reactor design that could be vulnerable to an earthquake or the impact of an airplane crash. The site of the new reactors is located at the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant, operated by Southern Company.  In February 2010, it was announced that the corporation would be the first recipient of taxpayer backed loan guarantees, to the tune of $8.3 billion.

Going forward

Amazingly, despite emerging concerns about existing and proposed reactors, the Obama administration has said it will not back off its plans to further prop up the nuclear industry through increased taxpayer-backed loan guarantees and the inclusion of nuclear power technology in the administration’s clean energy standard. The administration has included $36 billion in loan guarantees in its budget proposal for fiscal year 2012. Instead, it should immediately halt subsidies and instead focus on developing solar and wind power.  Take Action on Nuclear Subsidies

The administration  must take off the blinders, look hard at what is going on in Japan and realize that yes, a catastrophe can happen here.

Allison Fisher is the Outreach Director for Public Citizen’s Energy Program