How Will Japan’s Crisis Affect U.S. Nuclear Safety?

April 7, 2011
In an interview with EHS Today, a physicist explained that the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant may have implications for nuclear safety in the United States.

Workers in Japan are still struggling to prevent additional explosions, radiation leaks and damage to Fukushima’s crippled reactors following the April 11 earthquake and tsunami. Meanwhile, in the United States, the crisis has put the focus on our own nation’s nuclear safety.

Robert J. McTaggart, Ph.D., an associate professor of physics and coordinator of nuclear education at South Dakota State University, told EHS Today that a catastrophe similar to what is occurring at the Fukushima plant is not likely to happen here.

“Whenever something like this happens, I think the U.S. nuclear industry takes a hard look at all the procedures to see if they have missed something,” McTaggart said. “The main idea is to prevent an incident before it occurs. I think the probability of a Fukushima-like incident happening [here] is going to be reduced because Fukushima happened. Having said that, there could be something else, some combination of events we can’t foresee that stresses the design [of nuclear plants].”

McTaggart added that roughly one-quarter of the nuclear power plants in the United States are of the same make and model as Fukushima – but they have been upgraded throughout the years. The plants have measures in place to secure their diesel generators, have extensive backup battery systems and maintain evacuation plans, proper shielding and instrumentation to measure radiation.

In his April 6 testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Michael Corradini, Ph.D., chair of the nuclear engineering and engineering physics program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said “because of differences in U.S. seismology and installed safety equipment, it is highly unlikely that [a] Fukushima-like event could occur at a U.S. nuclear plant.”

Even so, McTaggart said the industry likely will examine safety and see what could be improved.

Protecting Nuclear Workers

Media reports indicate that the Fukushima responders may be working under difficult conditions, including not getting enough food or sleep. McTaggart said it is still difficult to tell what effect the work might have on these employees.

“Long term, it really depends on how long they work near the core. Basic safety is time, distance and shielding,” he said.

After Fukushima began to fail, Japan raised the maximum radiation exposure limit for workers to allow them more access to the plant. McTaggart said that rotating workers frequently is ideal, but this depends on the availability of additional qualified employees.

“One of the issues with the Fukushima plant is that they have six reactors in the same spot, and so all six were susceptible to the same low-probability but high-risk event. Now you have multiple reactors with multiple problems with a certain amount of staff,” he explained.

The availability of nuclear workers is a concern in the United States, as well, but for a different reason – a portion of today’s work force is nearing retirement, and recent estimates projected that the need for nuclear workers is as much as three times higher than the supply.

“The current work force is retiring and we’re getting ready to build more plants. At the same time, the nuclear engineering programs in the United States have been decreasing up until the last couple of years,” McTaggart said, stressing that it takes time to develop a sustainable, talented work force in this field. “We don’t have the same infrastructure that we did 20-30 years ago on college campuses.”

The Past and the Future

Following the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, all reactors in the United States were retrofitted so hydrogen venting could take place. Other safety systems, instrumentation, maintenance schedules and inspections have been stepped up since that incident, as well. According to McTaggart, since Three Mile Island, “there’s definitely been a tremendous focus on improving the safety culture at all nuclear power plants.”

He added that it remains to be seen whether the Fukushima accident will impact the progress of U.S. nuclear power, but expressed hope that the industry will not be slowed by this crisis.

“If you’re really talking about deaths from radiation, there are none at today’s power plants and there have not been any,” he said, and added that climate change-related issues have had a greater negative impact on human health and the environment than nuclear power.

“I think there’s going to be a greater emphasis on safety from here on out,” McTaggart said of the nuclear industry in the United States. “Anything that the nuclear industry wants to do is going to first focus on safety. That is very important.”

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