How the Feds Are Reacting to Fukushima

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Stark similarities between the stricken nuclear plant in Japan and dozens of sites in the United States continue to emerge, suggesting that under similar drastic scenarios, the United States might face the same kind of disaster. It’s unclear what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or Congress are prepared to do about it, but they do have the power to force the industry to implement new, costly safety measures.

A simulation by the NRC conducted last November showed that given a two-day power failure, the Peach Bottom plant in Lancaster, Pa. would come shockingly close to a reactor meltdown. Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released the model Wednesday. The plant is 40 miles away from Baltimore.

“The Peach Bottom plant came within one hour of core damage in a severe loss-of-power scenario,” Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said yesterday. “That result raises questions about whether our reactors may be as vulnerable as those in Fukushima,” he said. “Congress should be asking tough questions.”

There are 35 so-called “boiling water” reactors operating in the United States similar to those under duress in Japan. Of those, 23 are virtually identical to those in Japan, though the industry says that additional safety precautions implemented domestically after 9-11 make U.S. plants safer. Those measures were taken into account in the NRC simulation at the Peach Bottom plant.

The NRC is currently conducting a 90-day review of U.S. nuclear reactors in the wake of the disaster in Japan. Critics have long argued that the commission is too close to the industry it regulates and sometimes eschews costly or burdensome regulation.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem divided on how to respond. While Waxman says Congress should take a hard look at safety at U.S. plants, some Republicans have expressed concern that reflexive overreaction to the events in Japan could stifle the industry, which generates 20% of electricity in the U.S.