What Scientists Told the Senate about the Japan Nuclear Crisis

The Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works held a briefing on the “Nuclear Plant Crisis in Japan and Implications for the United States” on March 16th. Dr. Edwin Lyman, Senior Scientist of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was a witness. Here’s what he said (minus the introductory politeness:)

While the ongoing situation in Japan should be a main focus of U.S attention, we should not hesitate to ask ourselves whether we are doing all that we can do to prevent a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster from happening here.

Before proceeding, I would like to say that the Union of Concerned Scientists is neither pro nor anti-nuclear power, but has served as a nuclear power safety and security watchdog for over 40 years.

In the aftermath of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, the NRC undertook a major overhaul of its rules to correct many of the regulatory weaknesses that the accident revealed. In contrast, seven years later, the Commission and the industry avoided learning any lessons from the far more severe Chernobyl accident because of the misleading claim that such an extreme release of radioactivity could never happen at a plant of Western design.

“It can’t happen here” is not a policy

However, the NRC and the industry cannot hide this time behind the “it can’t happen here” excuse. We have 23 plants of the same design. We have plants that are just as old. We have had station blackouts.

We have a regulatory system that is not clearly superior to that of the Japanese. We have had extreme weather events that exceeded our expectations and defeated our emergency planning measures (Katrina).

We have had close calls (e.g. Davis-Besse) that were only one additional failure away from becoming disasters. We have had full-blown disasters in other industries (e.g. BP). We have suffered a devastating terrorist air attack against our infrastructure for which we were completely unprepared.

What if Fukushima were happening here?

I would ask the Committee to imagine for a moment that the crisis unfolding at Fukushima is taking place in their home states, and to consider whether this is something that Americans should ever have to endure under any circumstances.

If the answer is no — the right answer, in our opinion — then it is incumbent on you to thoroughly investigate whether the risk of an American Fukushima is really as low as the NRC and the industry claim.

But even though it will be a long time before we learn all the lessons from the still-evolving disaster in Japan, it is not premature to immediately take steps to reduce vulnerabilities that have long been known by regulators but have not been addressed.

US has 31 plants similar to Fukushima

  1. At least two spent fuel pools at the Fukushima plant have caught fire and are releasing radiation into the atmosphere. These pools are on the upper floor of these Mark I boiling-water reactors and are now open to the air following explosions that breached the buildings around them. The U.S. has 31 boiling-water reactors with similarly situated spent fuel pools that are far more densely packed than those at Fukushima and hence could pose far higher risks if damaged. The U.S. should act quickly to remove spent fuel from these pools and place them in dry storage casks to reduce the heat load and radioactive inventories of the pools.
  2. The Fukushima accident was precipitated by an earthquake and tsunami, but the direct cause appears to have been a loss of both off-site and on-site power supplies, a situation known as a station blackout. There are many other types of initiating events that could cause such a situation, including terrorist attacks. The NRC requires U.S. plants to have the capability to cope with a station blackout for no more than four to eight hours. We need to re-evaluate the adequacy of these requirements and the effectiveness of their implementation.
  3. Although the Japanese are engaged in truly heroic efforts to mitigate the worst effects of this accident and reduce radioactive releases that could harm the public, these efforts have only been partially effective, are already resulting in life-threatening conditions for the workers on site, and are likely to ultimately fail. U.S. nuclear plants have severe accident management plans, but these plans are not required by regulations and do not have to be evaluated by the NRC and tested for their effectiveness. In the case of aircraft attack on a nuclear plant, the NRC does require plants to have plans to cope with the loss of large areas of the plant due to explosion and fire. These plans will have to be re-evaluated in light of Fukushima to judge whether they can be realistically carried out. In the meantime, the NRC should place a far greater emphasis on preventing accidents and terrorist attacks rather than trying to control them afterward.
  4. Elevated levels of radiation have already been detected more than one hundred miles from the release site. While these levels remain low, if the accident continues to worsen then they could increase dramatically. If there was a reactor accident in the United States, the emergency preparedness measures that would directly protect the public, including evacuation planning and potassium iodide distribution, are limited to a 10-mile radius. Whether this distance should be increased will need to be reevaluated, as will the workability of emergency plans in the context of natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Safety margins eroded

There are many other areas where we believe the NRC has allowed safety margins to decrease too far. Now, not after an accident, is the time to reconsider whether the NRC’s position on “how safe is safe” is truly adequate to protect public health and safety.

Thank you for your attention, and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.


By daveeza via Flickr/Creative Commons
Remarks of Dr. Edwin Lyman, Senior Scientist of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists


Dr S.
Dr S.6 years ago

On designing for the impossible, one has to set a bar which structures are able to withstand. If that bar is exceeded, as with Katrina or Fukushima. Maybe the lesson here is that even though the best intentions to account for the 1 in a million event - it could still happen. Do we design for it, not necessarily. We have to set the bar to some degree - 1 in a billion, gazillion? One can not engineer out the impossible. However infinite safety at infinite cost. If infinite safety were to apply to air travel, no one would fly. In the end, it is nature we are beholden to, however it is also the dedication, skill and resolve of human ingenuity that will triumph. A better day for nuclear is ahead. Global warming and green house gasses will not go away because some people feel nuclear needs to be retired. Nuclear energy is here to stay. So we should work hard on both the application, and the understanding to improve engineering design features. For these "beyond the design basis events", it is important to understand that margin should be built into the system. For those events, the bar can never be set. BTW, no one is talking about the Fukushima dam collapse that killed 10.

Dr S.
Dr S.6 years ago

The UCS claims not to be anti-nuclear however they act on intervenors behalfs who are vehemently antinuclear. Let us not forget that UCS seems to garner all the headlines when it comes to "technical" and scientific expertise, however organizations like the Nuclear Energy Institute, which has seasoned industry experts are no where to be seen. How about some balance here? Surely Ed Lyman and David Lochbaum do not speak for all who want to understand the technology. One is an ivy-league physicist (academic and policy wonk) while the other did have some plant experience. But this is not enough. If the UCS really wants to be perceived as credible and more thourough, they should have at least 12, 20 nuclear engineers on their staff. Lets not have the UCS be the scientific spokesperson for those that really want to understand the technical issues. We want to work for safer nuclear power, but we also must accept risk at some level. Zero risk is not realistic on this planet. Ask Southwest Airlines. I bet the UCS staff flies everywhere. They understand the numbers with respect to risk. Nuclear on par with everything else needs to have a risk metric be as low as reasonably achievable, while not breaking the bank. The reason nuclear is so costly in the US due to inefficiencies in safety implementation. Too much is paid to the trivial, while the potential for much greater is not given its due. How about the UCS adopt a graded approach and not get the American public spun up over minutia.

Dean P.
Dean P6 years ago

Tax the rich feed the poor till there is no rich nomore..Quote and unquote.

Dean P.
Dean P6 years ago

Japan, Japan, Japan, How about helping the needy people in the USA that truly need help..instead of helping all others then complain about the nations debt, then making the middle to lower middle class pay for it thru the tax incurred!

Thianleong Lee
Thianleong Lee6 years ago

It appears that science has still a lot to know how to to improve conditions of the aging earth crusts worldwide, related influence of wind, oceanic and atmospheric changes that affect climate change. What about opening up the North and South Poles? Has anything to do with the "cold streams" from the South Pole influence tsunami or earthquake to have caused the horenous calaminities and deaths of "hundreds" of "thousands" of human beings. What about starting research into the bottom of the ocean to discover how to manage the so-called cracks, how best to secure the "ring of fire" from widening...It is about time to add this rresponsibities to the scients who dedicate to the peaceful use of nuclear energey to also be concerned to see that all areas of earthquake prones countries be provided informations not to build dangerous nuclear facilities near risky areas too. What about nuclear fallout endangering food supplies from the seas, isn't this is important for the scientists to also research into this, so in my opinion the scientists have a lot on their hands to save humanity apart from what God can do...

Carole Brown
Carole B6 years ago

Sometimes things are outside human control!
We should all get on our knees and pray when something like this happens!

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons6 years ago

People who built the reactors forget about Murphy's law.

Ernie Miller
william Miller6 years ago

Lets just hope we kill ourselves off before we figure out a way to get off this planet and kill off a differant one.

Nita Smith
Nita Smith6 years ago

There are bigger laws than man made laws at work here and it shows how money and materialism can vanish in a second when we go against these laws of nature, she is unforgiving in her destructive mode, brought about by man, brought back on man and everyone suffers, the poor and innocent along with the great corporates. What is security in the face of disasters like this? There is no security that money can buy for everything will come back around, that is why the world is round. The ones at the top of the ladder are so, so clever, clever enough to control the world, but not clever enough to see the bigger picture, that we are all one and the cause comes back to effect us. That is nature's law, the law of Karma.

Mary Meijer
- M6 years ago

Were where all the experts before this plant had been built?