Here’s How American Scientists Plan to Prevent the Next Nuclear Disaster

Japan's nuclear watchdog members, including Nuclear Regulation Authority members in radiation protection suits, inspect contaminated water tanks at the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in the town of Okuma, Fukushima prefecture on August 23, 2013. Japan's nuclear watchdog dispatched an inspection team to the crippled Fukushima plant after workers found a huge toxic water leak and unexplained radiation hotspots. Earlier this week around 300 tonnes of radioactive liquid is believed to have escaped from one of the hundreds of tanks that hold polluted water, some of which was used to cool the broken reactors, in an episode dubbed the most serious in nearly two years. JAPAN OUT AFP PHOTO / JAPAN POOL via JIJI PRESS (Photo credit should read JAPAN POOL/AFP/Getty Images)
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Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
July 24, 2014, 10:16 a.m.

Des­pite ad­vances in pro­tect­ing U.S. nuc­le­ar plants, more work must be done to make sure they can with­stand such nat­ur­al cata­strophes as the earth­quake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushi­ma Daii­chi nuc­le­ar plant in Ja­pan.

That’s the re­com­mend­a­tion from a fed­er­al re­port re­leased Thursday that in­vest­ig­ated the 2011 dis­aster at the Fukushi­ma Daii­chi plant, which forced the evac­u­ation of 300,000 people from the re­gion and drew re­newed at­ten­tion to the dangers of nuc­le­ar power.

The Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences, which was com­mis­sioned to in­vest­ig­ate the in­cid­ent, found that U.S. plants are de­signed to with­stand crises such as equip­ment fail­ures, loss of power, or an in­ab­il­ity to cool the re­act­or core. But it’s the “bey­ond-design-basis events,” like nat­ur­al dis­asters, that pose the great­er risk and have been be­hind melt­downs at Fukushi­ma, Three Mile Is­land, and Chernobyl.

John Gar­rick, one of the 21 mem­bers of the com­mis­sion that wrote the re­port, said that cur­rently op­er­at­ors and plan­ners may have a “tend­ency to com­part­ment­al­ize,” but that more needs to be done to con­sider all pos­sible threats. That in­cludes design­ing plants to with­stand dis­asters and train­ing staff for “ad hoc” emer­gen­cies.

The staff at Fukushi­ma Daii­chi, the re­port says, re­spon­ded with “cour­age and re­si­li­ence” after the ac­ci­dent, but it could have done even more and po­ten­tially aver­ted dam­age to the re­act­or core with more “clar­ity of roles and re­spons­ib­il­it­ies” in such a situ­ation. The scope of the ac­ci­dent, the re­port said, also hindered the re­sponse.

Bet­ter design, the com­mis­sion said, could also have helped. The re­port notes that an­oth­er nuc­le­ar plant, On­agawa, was closer to the fault line but avoided dam­age on the scale of Fukushi­ma Daii­chi’s be­cause of “good design for earth­quake and tsunami haz­ards.”

The sci­ent­ists also re­com­men­ded that the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion and the nuc­le­ar in­dustry act­ively seek out in­form­a­tion about new haz­ards, in­cor­por­ate mod­ern risk con­cepts in­to safety re­quire­ments, and ex­am­ine off-site re­sponses.

The re­port’s au­thors note they did not have the “time or re­sources” for an in-depth look at U.S. pre­pared­ness for a nuc­le­ar dis­aster, and the au­thors re­cog­nized that many im­prove­ments are on­go­ing and wer­en’t ready for a full re­view.

The Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute said the NAS find­ings “val­id­ate the ac­tions” taken by the in­dustry and gov­ern­ment in the three years since the dis­aster. Among those, the in­dustry group said, are the im­ple­ment­a­tion of a more di­verse and flex­ible cool­ing sys­tem, the open­ing of re­sponse cen­ters in Phoenix and Ten­ness­ee to back up nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies in emer­gen­cies, and the as­sur­ance that stor­age pools for used fuel rods are pro­tec­ted.

“We are an in­dustry of con­tinu­ous learn­ings, and the past three years bear that out,” said An­thony Pietran­gelo, NEI seni­or vice pres­id­ent. “Simply put, we can­not let such an ac­ci­dent hap­pen here.”

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