The approach to the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor complex winds through empty villages where weeds grow in silent communities, storefronts are shattered and advertising signs entice a population that may be years in returning.
A year ago I visited the site of the devastating March 11, 2011, accident triggered by a massive 9.0 earthquake and subsequent 46-foot tsunami.
The site where four of six reactors were inundated bears testament not only to the power of the natural forces but also to the huge hydrogen explosions that rocked three of the reactors. Rusting trucks lay about the property. And thousands of workers in protective gear and full-face respirators scramble over the shattered industrial complex.
It is hard to visit the site without coming away impressed with the forces at work and a recognition this cannot be allowed to happen again anywhere. In the United States, we must redouble our efforts to prevent such an accident here, whether caused by an earthquake, another natural disaster or a man-made event.
Not long after the accident at Fukushima, the independent U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission I chair embarked on a concerted effort to learn and apply lessons from Fukushima. The Commission set out a three-tiered program of safety enhancements.
Many of the recommendations — while complex — are grounded in simple concepts. Among them are ensuring all U.S. plants take the latest seismic and flooding information into account; ensuring that the 31 U.S. early design boiling water reactors similar to those at Fukushima have the capacity to vent pressure and perhaps even filter vented air; ensuring there is sufficient additional equipment at the ready to deal with a loss of power at a reactor site and provide backup cooling; and getting additional sensors and cooling capacity for spent fuel pools.
The NRC staff and the nuclear industry have made good progress in responding to the recommendations to date.
We have approved plans for nuclear power plants to buy additional equipment and distribute it around their sites so that they will be able to respond even if a severe event disables permanently installed equipment. They are in the process of installing spent fuel pool instrumentation, and this spring and fall they will begin major work to accommodate hardened venting systems and additional wiring and piping to connect to newly installed cooling equipment.
Every U.S. plant is in the process of completing an in-depth reanalysis of their sites’ potential for floods and earthquakes. We’ve checked the first flooding analyses and expect more in soon. We also expect the earthquake analyses from the vast majority of U.S. plants by the end of March. We’ll ensure the plants compare their sites’ new analyses to their existing designs to see what enhancements might be needed.
The NRC has conducted our work following Fukushima in a spirit of openness and transparency, and we’ve benefitted greatly from public feedback. Over the past three years we’ve addressed Fukushima-related topics in more than 150 public meetings. These meetings let the public see and participate in discussions on proposed NRC actions and the industry’s responses.
Finally, let me address the occasional Internet-based concerns we’ve seen about Fukushima contamination in the Pacific Ocean. Contamination near Japan’s coast is well below U.S. and international drinking water limits. And the Pacific’s vast volume has greatly dispersed any contamination before it can reach our west coast. Here the concentrations are projected to be hundreds or a thousand or more times below already strict U.S. and international limits that protect public health and the environment. Scientists have not seen any Fukushima contamination that raises a concern about the U.S. food supply, water supply, or public health.
The images of Fukushima are indelibly impressed on my mind. Even now I’m still struck by the experience of seeing the empty nearby villages, each holding memories of the 160,000 people displaced by the accident. Fukushima put nuclear safety in the spotlight. As we continue our work to address lessons learned, the NRC is committed to keeping it there