Would U.S. nuclear reactors fare better in some ultimate crisis than those in Japan? For weeks now, we’ve been lectured by nuclear critics who say the design and failures of the Fukushima Daiichi installation presage catastrophic failures in our own reactors. There’s good reason to believe the critics are wrong, though certainly the industry will learn lessons and apply technical tweaks.
Why? After 9/11, American nuclear plants underwent top-to-bottom safety review and upgrades unique in the world. Measures taken to protect against terror attacks can incidentally deal with the destruction of large areas of the plant, as well as subsequent catastrophic loss of electrical power, controls, and pumping equipment (among other dire scenarios) that fail in a fashion similar to what happened in Japan.
“You can have a tsunami, or an explosion, or an airplane hit the plant, but the plant must have on-site and off-site resources to prevent the release of radiation,” says Dr. Nils J. Diaz, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President George W. Bush. Diaz was the key figure in developing the emergency-response plans.
President Obama referred obliquely to these measures when he said, “Our nuclear power plants have undergone exhaustive study and have been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies.” The administration’s calm response to the crisis — in sharp contrast with, for example, Germany chancellor Angela Merkel’s, or even its own during the Deepwater Horizon
oil spill — appears based on the fact that American facilities are uniquely hardened against disaster.
As usual in a major crisis, the mainstream media has maintained a strict blackout on saying anything good about the Bush administration, along with the robust nature of American nuclear power. “I’ve been on TV 28 times — from MSNBC to CNN to Fox News — and several times I’ve mentioned it, I’ve tried to be reassuring, but every time the point they try to make is how bad things are.” says Diaz, who’s even written a couple of unpublished op-ed pieces. By contrast, the alarmists, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth, the Institute for Policy Studies, and some Democratic-party officials, including New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts congressman Ed Markey, have virtually monopolized the national discussion. Their failure to include the post-9/11 upgrades is disingenuous. As stories go, this is a pretty hard one to miss. It’s even laid out in some detail on the NRC website
To be fair to the media, the government and the nuclear industry have been cagey about details that terrorists could exploit, which invariably triggers an itch of distrust among journalists. Some things aren’t public. In addition, experts say cultural factors are also at work in dampening the discussion: Information and advice flows more freely when Japanese managers are treated collegially, rather than lectured about their shortcomings. The U.S., in other words, can’t be seen by the Japanese as bragging about its own nuclear prowess.
Power operations are a good example of the difference between response here and in Japan: The Fukushima Daiichi cooling systems apparently functioned for a time on battery backup power, but when that ran out, emergency generators failed, and the reactors began heating up, eventually leading to explosions and further damage that still has the plant on shaky footing. An early power-up could have prevented all that, but the Japanese took days to string new lines to the site.
U.S. plants appear better able to maintain cooling and power — and to restore both fairly quickly if lost. A Tennessee Valley Authority facility recently displayed for the New York Times
and several other outlets have portable backup batteries and some manual controls onsite to manage critical systems. As the Times
’s Matthew Wald wrote, “One cart could power the instruments that measure the water level in the reactor vessel, an ability that Japanese operators lost a few hours after the tsunami hit. Another could operate critical valves that failed early at Fukushima.
“They’re like a backup to the backup,” Keith J. Polson, the T.V.A.’s vice president for the Browns Ferry site told the Times
. “That’s what we think the Japanese didn’t have.”