A new analysis of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown caused by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami a year ago puts some of the blame on human error and regulatory oversight, but paints an optimistic picture of the safety of America's nuclear power plants.
The report, issued by the American Nuclear Society's special committee on Fukushima, says that the meltdown was caused by a "catastrophe of monumental, unanticipated proportions," but says the Japanese response is a "complex story of mismanagement, culture, and sometimes even simple errors in translation."
"Given the backdrop of the situation, mistakes related to Fukushima Daiichi certainly should have been expected," it says. "However, there were serious problems with accident management and with risk communication and crisis communication that need to be examined."
In a New York Times op-ed published Friday, James Acton and Mark Hibbs, senior associates in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, similarly condemned the Japanese response.
"The potential risks of tsunamis to nuclear power plants are well understood and a set of international standards has been developed to mitigate those risks," they wrote. "Despite Japan's history of tsunamis … Japan's nuclear regulator did not apply those standards."
The ANS report blames a regulatory oversight that didn't account for such a large tsunami, allowing the plant to become flooded and lose power sources that could have potentially cooled the reactors. The report also says an "unclear chain of command" resulted in confusion during the accident.
During the period immediately following the accident, the Japanese government didn't "communicate effectively to its people and the global community," the report says. Officials should have provided near-constant updates using "timely information" and used a "sound, well-researched accident management plan … none of the above happened with the Fukushima Daiichi accident."
According to Michael Corradini, co-chair of the ANS's special committee on Fukushima, the long-term health impacts of the accident aren't likely to be severe.
"There were no fatalities due to the accidents' radiation, there were fatalities due to drowning," he says. "And the long-term impacts from induced cancers are likely to be small compared to what was originally expected."
The committee said the accident provided a chance to review America's regulations and emergency preparedness. Corradini says "things are acceptable going forward in the States … I don't think anything coming out of Fukushima would imply we aren't prepared." The emergency response protocols in the United States are more well defined, he says, but can always be improved.
Thursday, the New York Times reported that Japan is completely abandoning nuclear power, with the last two operating plants set to be deactivated as soon as next month.
In the United States, nuclear power appears to be gaining momentum. Last month, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted building permits for two new reactors, the first new licenses since the late 1970s. Those reactors will have what's called "passive safety features" that should allow the reactors to cool off in the event of a meltdown, even if external power is lost. Corradini says backup power failure at Fukushima, caused by tsunami flooding, was to blame for the extended meltdown.
But the passive safety features built into the upcoming reactors can't be retrofitted onto America's 104 existing reactors. Corradini says America's best bet is "improving the reliability of alternative sources of electricity that run emergency cooling systems."