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U.S. Nuke Plant Safety Questioned in Wake of Japanese Disaster

NEW YORK, Mar 15 2011 (IPS) - As Japan continues to battle the threat of nuclear meltdown in the wake of Friday’s devastating earthquake, lawmakers, environmental activists and the nuclear industry in the United States are squaring up for a heated contest over the future of atomic energy in this country.

Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of the 104 nuclear reactors across the U.S.  Credit: Photorush/creative commons license

Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of the 104 nuclear reactors across the U.S. Credit: Photorush/creative commons license

With the U.S. counted among the world’s biggest producers of nuclear power, debate is centring on Washington’s ability to handle a similar disaster should it occur.

There are 104 nuclear reactors across the U.S. – 35 of which are boiling-water reactors of a similar design to the troubled models in Japan – and policymakers such as Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey are now questioning their safety.

In a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) dated Mar. 11, Markey raised fears about the resilience of the nuclear power plants, several of which lie on or near fault lines.

Of particular concern, he writes, is a nuclear reactor design – manufactured by Westinghouse and currently under review by the NRC – which has reportedly failed seismic shock tests.

According to Markey, a senior engineer at NRC charges that the AP1000 reactor’s shield is so brittle it “could shatter like a glass cup”, under stress generated by an earthquake.

The congressman also highlighted concerns about the U.S.’s ability to respond to a nuclear disaster, following recent revelations that the Environmental Protection Agency, the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been unable to agree on which agency would lead efforts to address a reactor meltdown.

Markey has requested a thorough investigation into safety regulations in light of the events unfolding in Japan, where authorities reported a further “huge explosion” at the Fukushima nuclear power plant on Monday, triggering fears of a serious radiation leak.

A 20km exclusion zone remains around the plant and local media have reported radiation levels rising in Ibaraki, between Fukushima and Tokyo.

However, the Japanese government has been playing down the threat posed by the ageing reactors, despite requesting urgent assistance from both the NRC and the United Nations atomic watchdog.

Back in the U.S., the Barack Obama administration has moved to reassure the public over the safety of its nuclear plants, brushing aside calls for a moratorium on nuclear power development.

President Obama has already requested an additional 36 billion dollars in loan guarantee authority for new nuclear reactors in 2012. If authorised, this would make a total of 54.5 billion dollars in nuclear loan guarantees.

And industry lobby group, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), has also attempted to stem rising concerns over the future of nuclear energy.

In a statement on its website the NEI said it was too “premature” to draw parallels between the Japanese and U.S. nuclear programmes.

“Japan is facing what literally can be considered a ‘worst case’ disaster and, so far, even the most seriously damaged of its 54 reactors has not released radiation at levels that would harm the public,” the group claimed, reiterating advances made in nuclear energy production in recent years.

“Until we understand clearly what has occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, and any consequences, it is difficult to speculate about the long- term impact on the U.S. nuclear energy programme.”

However Linda Gunter, from the anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear, called for greater transparency from the country’s nuclear lobby and the Japanese government.

Gunter told IPS the partial meltdown at the Fukushima plant should serve as a wake-up call to those advocating nuclear power.

“Even if you get away from the safety issue, which is obviously front and centre right now because of what’s happening in Japan, and you look at solutions to climate change, then nuclear energy takes way too long to build, reactors take years to come online, they’re wildly expensive. Most of the burden of the cost will fall on the U.S. taxpayer in this country, so why go there?” she said.

“And the possibility of it going radically wrong, the outcome is so awful that morally you can’t justify it,” she added. “The reliability of nuclear power is practically zero in an emergency when you have this confluence of natural disasters.”

In Japan, where up to 10,000 people are feared to have perished in Friday’s tsunami, the nuclear concerns are compounding what is being described as the country’s worst disaster since World War II.

In light of this, Beyond Nuclear and other anti-nuclear organisations are calling for a complete phase-out of nuclear power plants and stronger investment in green energy.

“We have the technology now to go to 100 percent renewables and efficiency,” said Harvey Wasserman, editor of the website and author of “Solartopia! Our Green-powered Earth”.

“But the corporations have huge investments that would be threatened by rendering coal, oil, nukes and gas – I call them ‘King Cong’ – obsolete,” he told IPS. “They also fear the installation of an energy system that can be community- controlled rather than corporately monopolised. So it’s ultimately a struggle between rich and poor, corporations and communities, and technologies of death versus those of survival. ”

Other experts stress the dangerous connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation.

“The already oversold ‘nuclear renaissance’ is definitely over,” said John Burroughs, executive director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and director of the U.N. Office of IALANA, the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms.

“Every nuclear reactor produces spent fuel containing plutonium, which with chemical processing can be used in weapons,” he told IPS. “The weapons-nuclear power connection must be part of the reassessment of nuclear power.”

“Undoubtedly the disaster will give rise to renewed demands for truth-telling by the nuclear power industry and its regulators. That same demand should be extended to nuclear weapons establishments in the nine countries that possess nuclear arsenals and the many countries in nuclear-weapon alliances,” he said.

The five “declared” nuclear powers are the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, while the four “undeclared” nuclear states are India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

*Additional reporting by Kanya D’Almeida.

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