Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japanese Quake, Tsunami & Nuclear Disaster: Few Good Answers

Mar 15: In the aftermath of the largest recorded earthquake to ever hit Japan (8.9) off the coast of the northeastern city of Sendai which triggered a powerful tsunami that has caused incalculable damage and loss of life, there are now significant concerns over the integrity of several nuclear reactors. Reports are that some 800 nuclear plant workers have been evacuated and some 50-60 workers, which must be thought of as heroes, remain in command of the breached facilities and face very high, if not lethal radiation exposures. Obviously, there are many concerns and questions about the potential near-term and long-term human health, economic, environmental and policy impacts both in Japan and internationally and few answers of good information at this point.
    In an effort to put the disaster into some factual context, amidst incredible speculations by many sources, WIMS has uncovered two informative article -- a timeline of events the Christian Science Monitor and a concise, point-by-point article by Matthew Bunn, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School entitled, Japan's nuclear power plant crisis: Some context. Also, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has launched daily briefings and updates on the nuclear reactor situation (links provide below).
    The Bunn article indicates, "Bad as it is, this accident is dramatically less catastrophic than Chernobyl.  That accident spread millions of curies of radioactivity -- 3-4% of all the radioactivity in the reactor core -- around the surrounding countryside, exposing millions of people in several countries. Large areas are uninhabitable to this day.  Here there is no real prospect of a runaway chain reaction as occurred at Chernobyl." However, Bunn says, "this is the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, and in some respects worse than Three Mile Island."
    Bunn says the catastrophe, "is clearly an example of the huge importance of taking redundant safety systems seriously, and considering carefully the full scope of events that could occur.  Given the huge magnitude of the quake, I think it is impressive that all the affected reactors initially managed to shut down automatically as planned, and begin emergency cooling operations. . . This reinforces the view that whenever someone says there is less than a one-in-a-million chance of a complex system failing, there is more than a one-in-a-million chance they have made unjustified assumptions in their estimate."
    He says, "The reason that the disaster hasn't been worse was that the Japanese system had many, many safety precautions in place. However, on the subject of security, he indicates, "Security, by contrast, is something most people in the nuclear industry might get a half-hour briefing on once a year.  If you have intelligent adversaries, it wouldn't be a surprise to have the main power for the cooling and the backup power both fail — the adversaries would plan to make sure that happened."
    On the future of nuclear power, Bunn says, "It remains to be seen what impact this will have on the future of nuclear power in Japan, and the future of nuclear power elsewhere. China will likely continue its ambitious plans, for example. But if I had to guess, I would say public and investor perceptions of the safety of nuclear power around the world has been dealt a serious and lasting blow.  This did not take place in a developing country that had just built its first plant and hadn't had time to develop a proper safety culture -- this took place in Japan, one of the wealthiest, most experienced, and most safety-conscious nations on earth (though one that also has had a history of safety issues that were covered up and not reported to the regulator in a timely way)."   
    The timeline article summarizes some key facts to date as follows: Death toll: 2,722 (expected to be much higher); Confirmed missing: 3,742; Evacuated: 439,337; Houses damaged: 68,231; Houses destroyed: 4,648; and Countries offering aid: 102. Also, in separate reports some 140,000 people near the damaged reactors have been advised to remain indoors and attempt to seal their houses. The New York stock market reacted wildly today in response to the Japanese disaster, uncertain economic impacts both here and abroad, as well as the continuing unrest in Libya and north Africa.
    On March 14, House Energy & Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA), Subcommittee Ranking Members Bobby Rush (D-IL),  Diana DeGette (D-CO), and Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) sent a letter to Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Ranking Members, requesting an investigation and hearing to examine the safety and preparedness of nuclear power plants in the United States.
    The letter indicates, "The worsening nuclear crisis in Japan is raising serious questions in the minds of many Americans about the safety and preparedness of nuclear power plants in the United States. We request that the Committee conduct an investigation and hold hearings to examine this issue. The nuclear industry has downplayed the significance of the events in Japan. Over the weekend, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying organization, said:  'Obviously, any time you have an incident at a nuclear plant that involves any kind of damage or an explosion, it's not good. … But in the scheme of things, is it a disaster? We don't think so.'

    "The nuclear industry has also asserted that it is far better prepared to respond to a nuclear accident than the oil industry was in responding to the blowout of BP's Macondo well. The vice president of nuclear operations for the Nuclear Energy Institute stated: "The problem with the BP event is that they didn't have a Plan B. … We have, I would say, sufficient defense in depth. We have Plan B, C, D and possibly E.'

    "We hope the nuclear industry's self-confidence is warranted, but we should not accept the industry's assurances without conducting our own independent evaluation of the risks posed by nuclear reactors in the United States and the preparedness of industry and regulators to respond to those risks. This is especially important given that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is actively considering license applications for new nuclear power plants, as well as renewal licenses for older existing reactors. In recent years, the NRC has approved over 60 license renewal applications, including several for plants with the same design as the endangered Japanese facilities. In fact, the NRC recently voted to renew the operating license for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is of the same design as some of the reactors experiencing severe problems in Japan."

    On March 12, Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) issued a brief statement in response to ongoing reports about the damage to Japanese nuclear facilities after a historic earthquake and tsunami hit the country on Friday, March 11. He said, "Our first priority is the safety of the Japanese people as they assess the damage and work to recover from this terrible natural disaster, and I support the President in his effort to provide assistance to the Japanese government and its people. I understand the Nuclear Regulatory Commission technical staff have offered support to help mitigate damage to the reactors, and our experts are closely monitoring developments at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and other affected facilities. As we extend our thoughts and prayers to those affected by this historic earthquake and the damage it wrought, we will carefully continue to assess and examine the situation. The details of this tragedy are still unfolding. The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is scheduled to testify before the Energy and Commerce Committee next week, and we will use that opportunity to explore what is known in the early aftermath of the damage to Japanese nuclear facilities, as well as to reiterate our unwavering commitment to the safety of U.S. nuclear sites."

    Access the Bunn article (click here). Access the Christian Science Monitor article which contains links to related articles (click here). Access a release and the letter from Democrats (click here). Access the statement from Rep. Upton (click here). Access the latest updates on the nuclear disaster from the IAEA (click here). Access a White House press briefing on March 14 with Greg Jaczko the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (click here).

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