CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the status of sources. The sources are lawmakers, former government officials and scientists.
The fears that Japan faces a nuclear catastrophe of historic proportions could create a political backlash for the U.S. nuclear industry, generating major aftershocks in the form of new licensing and security requirements or outright rejection of an industry that has been on the rocks for years.
Crisis teams were rushing Saturday to control damage at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following a deadly 8.9-magnitude earthquake that produced a devastating tsunami. Later Saturday, Japanese officials reported an emergency at a second reactor, according to media reports. But it was already apparent there will be repercussions for the U.S. nuclear industry, according to lawmakers, former government officials and scientists.
“This is obviously a significant setback for the so-called nuclear renaissance,” said Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The image of a nuclear power plant blowing up before your eyes on the television screen is a first.”
Bradford was referring to an explosion that blew the roof off the Fukushima Daiichi plant and sent plumes of smoke billowing into the air—a dramatic event that was broadcast widely and repeatedly by multiple international news stations.
“And significant radiation releases... cannot be good things for an industry that’s looking for votes in the Congress and in the state legislatures,” Bradford added.
The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a statement Saturday saying that Japanese authorities have concluded the blast occurred outside the primary containment vehicle of the plant’s Unit 1 reactor.
“The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has confirmed that the integrity of the primary containment vessel remains intact,” according to the IAEA. “Containment remains intact at Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 2 and 3.”
At the very least, U.S. officials are likely to review whether nuclear plants in the United States can sustain a major disaster.
“Most of the plants that were proposed in the U.S. are combined ventures of General Electric and Westinghouse with Japanese companies,” Bradford added. “So a number of the issues and assurances that have been given about those plants—about the possibility of hydrogen generation and hydrogen explosions and about the seismic designs—can only worsen in light of what’s happening in Japan.”
But Victor Gilinsky, who also served on the NRC and now an energy consultant, cautioned against rushing to judgments. He said there needs to be open, informed public dialogue about what nuclear plants are built to handle.
“This whole business about talking about are they safe are they not safe is an overly simplistic way about talking about,” he said in an interview. “Basically plants are built to certain standards and the standards do not account for every possible thing because if you accounted for every possible thing the costs would be astronomical.”
John Keeley, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, cautioned that it was too early to know what went wrong at the plant in Japan. But he said the industry will learn from it.
“If appropriate, we will incorporate things into our operations around the world," he said. The institute is a Washington, D.C.-based policy organization for the nuclear technologies industry.
What happens in Japan over the next day or so will go a long way toward determining the impact on the nuclear industry, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said during an interview on Fox News.
“I think what happens now to this power plant as to whether the damage is contained or not will have a direct effect on the future of nuclear power in the United States,” McCain said. “Let’s have a little straight talk.”
Experts said it is nearly impossible to predict what will happen. “We’re in uncharted territory,” said Ken Bergeron, a physicist who has worked on nuclear reactor accident simulation. “We’re in the land where probability says we shouldn’t be and we’re hoping that all of the barriers to release of radioactivity will not fail.”
Japanese officials were injecting a mix of sea water and boron into the primary containment vessel at the plant in order to cool it.
“I would describe this measure as a Hail Mary pass,” said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy advisor at the Energy Department. “But I can’t say if this fails then all bets are off.”
If it doesn’t work, the core could melt, which would be a worst-case scenario. A typical nuclear plant has about as much radioactive material as about 1,000 bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima in Japan during World War II, said Ira Helfand, a board member with Physicians for Social Responsibility.
“We don’t know exactly how they are getting water to the core or if they’re getting water to the core,” Bergeron added. “What we really need to know is how long can they keep that water flowing and it needs to be days to prevent that core from melting.”
In the United States, reactors located near seismically active zones where there have been large earthquakes previously are likely going to be subjected to much more scrutiny, particularly the two reactors in California, Alvarez said.
“These reactors are also seeking to extend their operating licenses,” he said. “It certainly also adds in another puncture to the nuclear renaissance balloon, which may discourage Congress, which is already in a budget-cutting mood, to not be willing to fund things like loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants.”
House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Edward Markey, D-Mass., on Saturday called for the Obama administration to put new policies in place as a result of the crisis in Japan, including imposing a moratorium on approving new nuclear reactors in seismically active areas until the completion of comprehensive construction and security plans.
“I am also struck by the fact that the tragic events now unfolding in Japan could very easily occur in the United States,” Markey said in a statement.
Even U.S. plants that may not be in seismic zones could still face terrorist attacks or some other major natural disaster, Bradford added.
“Fundamentally, if one is to go on relying on nuclear power, the challenge that events like this pose isn’t just to foresee whether they can be precisely replicated somewhere else. That’s kind of a fool’s errand,” Bradford said. “The challenge is really to rethink the licensing and design process in ways that [build confidence] about deeming certain events to be impossible.”