Fears of radiation and nuclear catastrophe remain the focus of the ongoing calamity in Japan, now in its second week. With aid from around the globe, Japan continues to struggle with the aftereffects of its natural disasters. Meanwhile, the rest of the world contemplates the safety and future of nuclear energy.
Japan remains in shambles after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami wiped out entire towns and killed thousands, but the world's attention is focused on nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which is located about 150 miles north of heavily populated Tokyo. Radiation levels at the Fukushima complex have spiked since the natural disasters comprised the plant's containment systems, which slowed down response efforts by preventing workers from getting close enough to the problem. The Japanese continue to work to secure external power sources for the reactors at the plant in an attempt to restore cooling systems and prevent any further release of radiation from the nuclear fuel rods in the plant's six reactor units. [See photos of the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami.]
The nuclear plant was designed with an on-site electrical generator that could maintain the reactors' cooling systems in case a disaster, like the earthquake that occurred March 11, cut off the plant's external power source. However, the tsunami that followed the earthquake proved too much for the facilities' safeguards, shutting down that backup, along with the automatic system that was being used to cool the reactors. The plant's remaining workers and emergency officials last week braved a series of explosions while working to stabilize the temperature of the fuel rods. The cooling measures—from shooting water from firetrucks to dumping seawater from helicopters—have been described by some as "last-ditch" attempts to prevent further meltdown. "When you start pumping seawater into a reactor, it's all over," says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. "You can't start using those reactors again."
Last Wednesday, near the height of the emergency at the nuclear plant, Japan's Emperor Akihito delivered an address to calm his nation. He praised the work being done on the ground and encouraged his people to remain hopeful. [Read the U.S. News debate: Does the United States need more nuclear power?]
The United States offered its expertise to help deal with the Fukushima Daiichi complex. According to Gregory Jaczko, head of the government's Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC experts on boiling water reactors have been sent to Tokyo to help manage the crisis. Last week, the United States also took a more publicly cautious approach than Japan, recommending that all its citizens within a 50-mile radius of the power plant evacuate. Japan, by contrast, encouraged those within an approximately 12-mile radius to evacuate or stay indoors. The United States also reportedly lent military firetrucks to the Japanese to pump water.
At home, President Obama said Thursday that those on American soil, including in Pacific states and territories, remain safe from radiation released from the Japanese plant. The Environmental Protection Agency, which controls air radiation monitoring sites across the country, reiterated that point this afternoon, stating on its website, "The levels detected are far below levels of concern."
The president last week said he's asking the NRC to do a "comprehensive review" of domestic plants in light of the events in Japan. [Read 10 things you didn't know about the NRC.]
So far, the catastrophe has not prompted any major changes to U.S. energy policy, but it has reignited the nuclear debate.
Some lawmakers are urging the domestic nuclear industry to use the Japanese tragedy as a real-life lesson on safety. "We have a lot of nuclear plants right here, and some of them are very much the same as what they have in Japan," says California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman. "Japan is a technologically capable country, and they anticipated earthquakes and tsunamis, but still they didn't have all the failsafes to stop this tragedy from occurring. So, we need a full inquiry as to how this happened, why it happened, what we can do to build in security features in the United States. Until that happens, we ought to step back from the direction that Republicans are taking, which is heavily reliant on nuclear."
On Friday, Vermont Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote a letter to the president urging him to issue a moratorium on all NRC licensing and re-licensing decisions.
Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Tom Kauffman says the nuclear industry has reason to remain confident that plants within the United States are safe. "All of our plants—whether they're on the [West] Coast or in the eastern part of the country—each plant is constructed to withstand the maximum projected earthquake at that site. It's a site-by-site situation that is revisited on a regular basis," says Kauffman. "There's going to be changes, but there's still going to be growth."
With 104 operating nuclear plants in the United States, nuclear power makes up approximately 20 percent of the total U.S. energy profile. As an arguably cleaner alternative to coal, gas, and oil, nuclear energy has gained bipartisan support in recent decades, especially as plants proved their safety. But the industry has faced an uphill battle, says Ferguson, even before the Fukushima plant began to break down. It has been more than three decades since construction began on a new nuclear power plant in the United States. The nuclear industry ascribes this to lack of financing, regulatory obstacles, and concerns over safety. [Take the U.S. News poll: Should the U.S. put a hold on building new nuclear power plants?]
Several lawmakers emphasized their commitment to nuclear power on Capitol Hill last week as they questioned federal experts on the safety of domestic plants. President Obama also continues to support nuclear energy, maintaining his request to Congress for $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear projects in next year's budget. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Wednesday told Congress that the administration would wait to see what can be learned from Japan before halting the growth of nuclear power.
According to Kauffman, there are two reactors nearing construction in Georgia and another pair in South Carolina. Both have been designed using advanced "passive" safety mechanisms, unlike the "active" safety mechanism that failed in Japan. With the newer technology, the plants employ automatic cooling mechanisms that do not rely on external energy sources to keep the fuel rods stable.
Around the world, countries fearful for their own plants' integrity have pulled back operations at nuclear facilities. Germany, for example, announced that they would shut down plants that began operating before 1980. The European Union, which still remembers the world's greatest nuclear disaster to date in 1986 at Chernobyl, vowed last week to perform "stress tests" on nuclear plants there. And China, which had planned to increase its nuclear power seven-fold in the next decade, has pledged to stall approvals for pending nuclear projects. There has also been a run worldwide on potassium iodide pills, which help guard against the adverse health effects of radiation.
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- See a slide show of a reality check on U.S. energy sources.
- See photos of the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami.