A top official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Monday that the nuclear crisis in Japan did not warrant any immediate changes in American nuclear plants. The commission’s inspectors at each nuclear site have been told to double-check that emergency precautions mandated years ago were still in place, including temporary hoses and fittings and other last-ditch backup equipment, said the official, William Borchardt, the executive director for operations.
The operator of Japan's tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant told safety regulators less than two weeks before disaster struck that it had failed to carry out some scheduled inspections at the facility.
In a report submitted to Japan's nuclear safety agency on February 28, Japan's largest power utility, Tokyo Electric Power Co, said it had failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment in the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex.
U.S. nuclear plants use the same sort of pools to cool spent nuclear-fuel rods as the ones now in danger of spewing radiation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, only the U.S. pools hold much more nuclear material. That's raising the question of whether more spent fuel should be taken out of the pools at U.S. power plants to reduce risks.
The Japanese plant's pools are far from capacity, but still contain an enormous amount of radioactivity, Lyman said. A typical U.S. nuclear plant would have about 10 times as much fuel in its pools, he said.
The unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant follows decades of falsified safety reports, fatal accidents and underestimated earthquake risk in Japan's atomic power industry.
The destruction caused by last week's 9.0 earthquake and tsunami comes less than four years after a 6.8 quake shut the world's biggest atomic plant, also run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. In 2002 and 2007, revelations the utility had faked repair records forced the resignation of the company's chairman and president, and a three-week shutdown of all 17 of its reactors.
The warnings were stark and issued repeatedly as far back as 1972: If the cooling systems ever failed at a “Mark 1” nuclear reactor, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would probably burst as the fuel rods inside overheated. Dangerous radiation would spew into the environment.
G.E. began making the Mark 1 boiling-water reactors in the 1960s, marketing them as cheaper and easier to build — in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure.
According to Biff Bradley, the director of risk assessment for the Nuclear Energy Institute, it's almost impossible to try to rank the absolute safety risk of a plant, due to the number of variables that would be involved in any sort of direct comparison.
But given that some fundamental risks are obvious and plant safety records are public, relative risks can be measured. For instance, nearly half of the 104 nuclear reactors operating in the United States are close to major fault lines, including the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre plants located near California's San Andreas Fault. The Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York is less than two miles from the Pampano fault line, and sits within 50 miles of more than 17 million people.
The number and strength of earthquakes in central Arkansas have noticeably dropped since the shutdown of two injection wells in the area, although a state researcher says it's too early to draw any conclusions.
"We have definitely noticed a reduction in the number of earthquakes, especially the larger ones," said Scott Ausbrooks, geohazards supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey. "It's definitely worth noting."
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