Suddenly, watching Japan's desperate water-cannon attempts to stave off successive nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant, we are all supposed to be tech-savvy atomic engineers. Out of nowhere, our job as John Q. Public now involves sorting through a blizzard of contradictory headlines about what is—and just as much, what is not—happening inside a hugely complex nuclear-power plant halfway around the world.
At once, news reports and public officials told us the reactor smoke, fire, and explosions were in no way comparable to the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the worst in history. Yet, in seeming contradiction, we also have been told that these same flare-ups may well end up salting large swaths of Japan with long-lasting radiation producing—as experts put it—potential “Chernobyl-like” results.
If you have been listening at all—and really, it’s been nearly impossible not to—the nuclear world we had before Fukushima is radically different from the one we have now. Clearly the disaster response has not gone well. The many experts who initially insisted that Japan’s nuclear-safety systems were working because the reactors’ containment vessels had not yet been breached now have gone silent. Why? A week into the crisis, two reactors’ containment vessels sprang serious leaks. There is more than a chance that radioactivity might also spew from one or more improperly cooled spent-fuel-reactor ponds. That’s bad news.
So bad that the focus has turned to casualties. The safety systems, at least as NEWSWEEK went to press, had kept the worst of the radiation from spreading far. Some have seized the fact, and the news that no one has yet died, to argue that nuclear power is safe. Stay tuned.
Most world leaders didn’t wait to act. Germany announced it would shut down (temporarily, at least) seven of its oldest reactors. Major safety reviews and licensing breathers have also been announced by France, the European Union, Thailand, Switzerland, the Philippines, India, and even China.
The collective pause is striking given that countries like India and China serve as the poster children for the nuclear industry’s much-heralded global renaissance. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, of the 65 reactors currently under construction around the world, just about half of them (32, to be exact) are found in these rapidly emerging countries.
In the U.S., however, President Obama and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu repeatedly tried to reassure the American public. But at best they have been playing catch-up to the rest of the world.
When asked early on if the U.S. should put on the brakes, both the president and Chu insisted no. Instead, they proceeded to promote U.S. nuclear power as if the catastrophe at Fukushima hadn’t even happened. Regarding the president’s imminent trip to Latin America, the White House announced that it would sign a memorandum of understanding on nuclear-power cooperation with earthquake-prone Chile. Meanwhile, the administration is still pushing Congress to approve $36 billion more in federal loan guarantees for the construction of new reactors. Obama and his nuclear team finally did announce a formal safety review on March 17, but that came a full week after congressional pleas from both pro- and anti-nuke lawmakers making noise on Capitol Hill.
They were adamant and far more sensitive to something the president and his nuclear advisers seemed reluctant to discuss: the fretful fact that nearly a third of the reactors operating in the U.S. are of a similar design as those that have gone so wrong in Japan. More than 20 are nearly identical and are roughly as old. Some are located near earthquake faults; others are on the coast. Where the Japanese are retiring their machines after 40 years of service, though, the U.S. government has decided to extend operating licenses to allow some of these reactors to run for 60 years.
So what, exactly, is going to happen? In announcing the review, Obama said that American nuclear-power plants “have been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies,” which leads one to ask, if you think the hard work has already been done, what’s really going to change? Assuming, then, that any real change is going to come from Congress, what questions should be asked?
First, if the U.S.’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been extending operating licenses on reactors similar to those in Japan for an additional 20 years, what should the U.S. government and the reactor operators be doing differently to assure they run safely over their projected 60-year lifetime?
Second, the Japanese assumed that the multiple emergency safety-backup systems would all work independently of one another. Instead, they were swamped with water and failed in block. What other fallacious assumptions are underlying nuclear safety?
Tokyo’s bungled response has sparked the question of which U.S. agency should be responsible for dealing with a nuclear incident? Currently, it’s the Department of Homeland Security. But after Hurricane Katrina, that should be a cause for pause.
Finally, Congress has plans to revise the export control and nonproliferation provisions of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act. They are sure to ask how much sense it makes for the U.S. to offer nuclear cooperation to states that have little or no reactor-operating experience and lack liability insurance that can protect U.S. vendors in the case of an accident. Also, after Iran’s peaceful nuclear program (which was based originally on U.S. nuclear cooperation), shouldn’t the U.S. be insisting on the toughest nonproliferation conditions not just of prospective customers, but of other nuclear suppliers?
In the wake of Japan’s disaster, much of the world has paused to make sure their nuclear house is in order. If Obama and his nuclear team can’t see the need to get answers before pushing more nuclear subsidies domestically and orchestrating more deals abroad, we can only hope that the U.S. Congress, with a closer ear to a public that now is trying to make sense of the news from Japan, will.
Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and the editor of Nuclear Power’s Global Expansion: Weighing Its Costs and Risks.