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Japan’s crisis prompts new questions about the safety of nuclear power. An update on efforts to contain the risks in Japan and how the disaster could affect the nuclear power industry worldwide.
- Chip Pardee Chief Operating Officer for Exelon Generation, the nation’s largest owner and operator of nuclear plants.
- Ellen Vancko Nuclear Energy and Climate Change Project Manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists
- Charles Ferguson President of the Federation of American Scientists
- Angie Howard Former executive with the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). Now a consultant for companies involved in nuclear and science technology.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. calls radiation levels in Japan extremely high. This morning, the Japanese military used helicopters to dump seawater onto the heavily damaged Fukushima power plant. The U.S. government has told Americans to stay at least 50 miles away because of radiation threats. Japan's worsening nuclear crisis is fueling new concerns over just how safe nuclear energy is in the U.S. and throughout the world. Joining me to talk about the effects on the nuclear industry, Ellen Vancko of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Charles Ferguson of the Federation of American Scientists and Angie Howard, she's a former Nuclear Energy Institute executive.
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour, I'll look forward to hearing your comments and questions. You can join us by phone on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you. Thank you for being here.
MR. CHIP PARDEEGood morning.
MS. ELLEN VANCKOGood morning, Diane.
MR. CHARLES FERGUSONGood morning, Diane.
MS. ANGIE HOWARDGood morning.
REHMCharles Ferguson, I'll start with you. Explain to us what's happening there at the -- inside the nuclear reactors at Fukushima site.
FERGUSONDiane, it's very complicated. We need to understand this is the largest nuclear complex in the world. If you look at the Fukushima power plants, there are basically two power plants. There are six reactors at the Daiichi facility, and that's the one that's undergoing the greatest concerns and the greatest damage. And then there's a neighboring facility at Daini where there are some other reactors as well. So the -- out of all the reactors there, it is the largest in the world. What we saw end of last week, Friday, when the earthquake struck, things happened as they should've happened at the nuclear facility.
FERGUSONWhat I mean by that is the seismometers at the nuclear plant registered a ground shaking above the safety threshold that sent a signal to the operating reactors to shut down. Control rods were inserted. The plant shut down properly as far as we understand. Then about an hour later, the tsunami came in. It was this one-two punch. And that's when the troubles started to begin because then the plant lost both offsite power and onsite emergency diesel generator power. People need to understand they're not nuclear engineers and nuclear physicists.
REHMAs I am not.
FERGUSONEven though they -- right. Even though the plant was shut down...
FERGUSON…there's still a lot of decay heat that has to be removed from the reactor cores. So the first reactor operates at 460 MW of electrical power. And when that will shut down, the power level, immediately after shutdown, was about 6 percent of that 460 MW. It's still a lot of power that's being generated. That decays over time. So, right now, we're in a race -- they're in a race against time to try to get the cooling under control. And the, you know, decay level keeps dropping, but it stays pretty intense for several days, if not more than a week or two until you can get it to the point where you can actually control things where we prevent the risk of a full meltdown of those cores.
REHMNow, what about this dumping of seawater on these nuclear reactors?
FERGUSONWell, this is -- you know, you kind of run out of options, and you want to still keep cooling on these cores. And at that point, of course, then the reactors are a loss, and you're just trying to protect public health and safety to try to get that -- those vents under control. So they have been directing seawater through fire hoses, and now helicopters, dumping into some of the reactors and the spent fuel pools as well 'cause that's another concern. I think people may think, well, we just have to deal with the reactor cores. But it could get worse than that because there are these spent fuel pools at the reactor core sites that contain several core loads of radioactive material.
FERGUSONSo if you want to speculate about a worst-case event, it could be the spent fuel pools get drained of water, the zirconium cladding and the spent fuel catches fire. And if you don't have a containment to hold that radioactive material in, the fire could disperse radioactive material.
REHMCharles Ferguson, he's president of the Federation of the American Scientists and author of the upcoming book, "Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know." Turning to you, Ellen Vancko, in a House subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said even he is confused about the threat level in Japan. How do you read it?
VANCKOI think, right now, we are hoping for better information than we've been getting from the Japanese government. The information that's going to the administration is, in some form, being conveyed to the American public, whether it's going to the administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent an entire team of people there a day or so ago, that it's not clear how close -- how -- whether they're on the ground because it's not clear who can be on the ground at this point, given the radiation release as we're hearing about.
VANCKOSo just the inability to be onsite and know what's going on will affect our ability to know what's going on. And so, I think, Secretary Chu is correct to state he doesn't know, but I'm not sure the Japanese government knows everything. And if they do, we're not sure they're telling us.
REHMSo are you equally confused about the width and breadth of the threat level?
VANCKOUCS has some very good scientists that are experienced in plant operations and nuclear safety, and they have been taking the data that is available to us and analyzing it and sending out the information to reporters and talking to the media and trying to keep people up-to-date on the implications of what's going on, not necessarily what's happening on a minute-by-minute basis. Excuse me. But if they have sufficient information, they try to -- we try to translate it in a manner that everybody can understand the implications of an event that's reported. So we're sort of being an interpretive -- providing an interpretive service right now, but we're not on the ground and can't speak any better than the secretary in that regard.
REHMAnd that is the voice of Ellen Vancko. She is nuclear energy and climate change project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Angie Howard, can you tell us how old these nuclear reactors are?
HOWARDThe Unit one at Fukushima is close to 40 years old. It was one of the original plants that was built in Japan. Others were added over time, but the -- one through three are older units. But, just like in the United States, I believe that the Japanese have maintained their plants well. They have, you know, kept them up to standards, their regulatory standards, just as we do here in the United States.
REHMNow, when you say, kept them up to nuclear regulatory standards, have those standards changed over the years since they were first built?
HOWARDYes, for several reasons. First of all, we are a learning industry. And from the time of the Three Mile Island event in the United States, we have established in the U.S. -- and then also there's a World Association of Nuclear Operators that looks at not only design issues from a regulatory standpoint, but also how to continuously improve and learn from events that occur throughout the world. And, today, we're doing just that same thing with the information that we know from Fukushima. We also have a very strong program in the United States that has been put in place since Sept. 11 that has upgraded both the safety and the security of nuclear units in the United States.
REHMSo you're saying if a nuclear unit were to be built today, it would be under very different standards from those built 40 years ago?
HOWARDWell, the new designs today do have additional safety, and some of them have safety systems that don't require electricity, don't require a lot of power or a lot of pumps, operating more off of gravity, you know, for some of the safety systems to flow water into the facilities or have redundancies in their safety systems and in their containment. So you have new designs today. But the existing plants that we have today also meet the current regulatory standards, and we're continually assessing those to make sure that they are adequate to protect public health and safety.
REHMHow serious do you regard this particular situation in Japan?
HOWARDWell, I think it's quite serious, and the industry is trying to assist the Japanese, both technically and in humanitarian needs. I mean, this area of Japan has been hit with an historic earthquake and tsunami that has done massive damage throughout the area and the displacement of many people. Clearly, the situation at Fukushima has added to that. There's no question about that. And yet, from the knowledge that we have and the operational activities that the Japanese have taken, they took quick action to move people out, to take the evacuation moves so that they can further protect the public.
REHMWe are going to take a short break now. When we come back, we'll talk about further efforts to cool the core of these nuclear reactors to cover the sites with water. I'm told that older technicians are now going in to try to deal with the situation there. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Joining us now is Chip Pardee. He's chief operating officer of Exelon Generation, the country's largest owner and operator of nuclear power plants. He's based in Illinois. Good morning to you, sir. Thanks for joining us.
PARDEEGood morning, Diane. My pleasure.
REHMI wonder, Chip, do you believe that what's happened at Japan's Fukushima plants could happen at any one of Exelon's plants?
PARDEEWell, Diane, no, I don't. And there are some decided reasons for that, which I can elaborate upon if you're interested.
PARDEEBut there are a number of reasons why. You know, our plants in the United States -- obviously including Exelon's plants -- are considerably different than those that are experiencing the challenges that they are in Japan. There were a number of similarities when they were initially designed and constructed. But, since the '70s, the industry in the United States has continued to upgrade the regulatory framework in which we operate. Our operator training programs have been updated to include events such as this. Our emergency preparedness activities have been expanded upon and trained upon, you know, through the decades. And those are very significant differences in how we operate our power plants...
PARDEE...how we plan for the worst event, and therein lies the basis of my answer.
REHMAnd with the prospects that California could eventually have one of these devastating seismic effects, what is the condition of the nuclear power plants in California? What would be the result of a similar catastrophe there?
PARDEEI -- we'll have to be careful. I can't speak definitively to the design requirements of the California plants that you're referring to, but I can certainly say that they are designed for catastrophic events such as earthquakes and tsunamis. The NRC has very recently reviewed the seismic and tsunami requirements, and those requirements are constantly being reviewed and, as circumstances necessitate, upgraded. So as recently as, for example, 2009, the NRC issued a report on tsunami effects with judgment as to whether or not we were sufficiently protected in the domestic U.S. nuclear business.
PARDEEAnd, I think, from all we can see, that our design criteria and the training that we do with the operators and the emergency preparedness staff would separate our response from what the Japanese folks are having to deal with today. And I should have started my conversation with our sympathies to the Japanese industry people that are having to deal with this and the nation as a whole. This is a catastrophic circumstance...
PARDEE...anyone would recognizes with the tsunami and the challenges...
REHMChip, I understand that Exelon sent lobbyists to Washington this week. What are they saying?
PARDEEWell, the only lobbyist that I'm aware of was me, to be honest with you, Diane. I went to Washington earlier this week to speak on behalf of the industry. One of the roles that I fulfill is the chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute's organization -- that is, all of the chief nuclear officers in the United States -- so I went on behalf of the industry to speak to elected officials and other interested parties to provide, to the very best of my ability, facts and perspectives regarding what was happening in Japan and our positioning here in the United States.
REHMDid you actually help to run those briefings?
PARDEEYes. You know, I was one of the principal speakers at those briefings.
REHMI understand that Exelon has spent nearly $4 million in lobbying and nearly $2 million through its pack in 2010. Tell me what you hope to accomplish.
PARDEEWhat -- I'm sorry. Just for clarity, what I hope to accomplish this week or in general...
PARDEE...what we do with our political action?
REHMIn the latter, please, and what that money is going for now.
PARDEEIt's -- the -- our political action committees are focused largely on information sharing with regard to climate change, with regard to EPA regulations that are being proposed. They are actually not focused principally on the nuclear business. It's more focused on energy and the need for a clean and green portfolio and comprehensive energy policy here in the United States.
REHMOkay. And, considering what's happened in Japan, do you think the U.S. should go forward with nuclear power?
PARDEEI think that the United States should go forward cautiously with nuclear power. There are clearly going to be lessons learned for us from the events that are unfolding in Japan. Ever since the accident at Three Mile Island in the 1970s, the industry has been very aggressive about learning from and changing as a result of world events, and this will be another world event that I'm sure our industry will be more robust for. But, with that said, there's going to be a balance of caution, making sure we're learning from this event. And yet, as best we can tell, there's nothing that has thus far transpired that would lead me to the conclusion that we should do anything -- we shouldn't proceed on a different course.
REHMAnd Chip Pardee is chief operating officer of Exelon Generation. That's the country's largest owner and operator of nuclear power plants based in Illinois. Their -- all but one of Exelon's 10 nuclear plants are located in Illinois and Pennsylvania. The other is in New Jersey. Now, Charles Ferguson, who's president of the Federation of American Scientists, has a question for you, Chip.
PARDEEGood morning, Charles.
FERGUSONGood morning, Chip. How are you?
PARDEEI'm well. Nice to talk to you again.
FERGUSONYou as well. For full disclosure, I admit I do have some -- own some shares in Exelon. But, Chip, my question to you is, a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C. at American Enterprise Institute, John Rowe, the CEO of Exelon -- he was very clear. He said it's such a competitive business right now for nuclear because of low natural gas prices and abundant sources of natural gas. It seems that Mr. Rowe, even though he's still very pro-nuclear power, he is saying that it's probably not going to be for the United States because of where natural gas is right now. And, in addition, I'd like you to comment on the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in New Jersey, why Exelon is going to phase out operation of that plant in 2019, a full 10 years before its license renewal expires.
PARDEEOkay. I'll start with your first question, Charles. John Rowe's comments, I believe, were not that nuclear power will not progress in the United States. It's that the merchant marketplace, the marketplace where there is no regulatory structure backing up the construction costs and such of the nuclear power plants -- in those merchant power plants, I think that progress will be slow. And this event in Japan may slow it down yet additionally. And that is simply because the opportunity to recapture costs in a -- in the uncertainties of a merchant marketplace may not support the very high initial upfront costs.
PARDEEAnd it's no different than what you're seeing us do with our proposed station down on the Texas Gulf Coast. We had originally stated the intent to build a two-unit -- dual unit station down there. When it became clear that natural gas prices were not going to support those construction costs, we have decided to go and establish a site but not pursue any construction activities until such time that it does appear that the marketplace would support that kind of upfront investment.
PARDEEThere are others, for example, the Southern Company -- and I don't want to speak too extensively to their strategy -- but, by all I can tell, the Southern Company and Georgia Public Utility Commission is very interested in energy diversity and the long-term assuredness of a clean energy supply. And my belief is, again, from all the information I have, that they are continuing to proceed with their project there.
REHMAll right. Ellen Vancko of the Union of Concerned Scientists has a question.
PARDEEI -- Diane, I did not complete Charles' questions. Shall we...
PARDEE…finish with the Oyster Creek question for him?
REHMOkay. Go ahead.
PARDEEOkay. And, Charles, to your question about Oyster Creek, that also was one simply of economics. It appeared to us that we were going to be required by the State of New Jersey to install cooling towers there, and the economics associated with the installation of cooling towers, with the plant lifetime that we had remaining before us, even with license extension at Oyster Creek, was not sufficient to support the cost of those cooling towers. So we had an agreement with the Christie administration to limit the remaining life of the plant in exchange for an agreement not to have to build cooling towers. It was...
PARDEE...no more complicated than that.
REHMBut tell me about the situation between now and then without those cooling towers.
PARDEEWe have technology installed at Oyster Creek to limit the amount of entrainment and impingement impact to the local estuaries in Barnegat Bay, so we think that our impact on the Barnegat Bay is minimal. But if the decision is, on the part of the state, that they would like to require either cooling towers or to strike a deal with us to shorten the lifetime of the plant, then we did what we thought was best, given the environment in the State of New Jersey and our responsibility to our shareholders.
REHMChip Pardee, he is chief operating officer for Exelon Generation, the nation's largest owner and operator of nuclear plants based in Illinois. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show" and, now, to Ellen Vancko.
VANCKOThank you, Diane. Good morning, Chip. I also was at the American Enterprise Institute last week when John Rowe spoke about the -- his view of the outlook of the nuclear power industry. And what he very clearly said -- and it's in a speech posted on your website, so anybody listening to me can go look at it for themselves -- but what he basically said was, first, do no harm. And the interesting thing is that, last week, that phrase had a very different meaning than it has today. Last week, he was talking about economic harm. He did not view the building of new reactors as an economic activity that he had any intention of pursuing.
VANCKOHis statement said that he would see maybe three to four units built before the end of the decade -- maybe -- and maybe nothing in the next decade. And he said this solely because he felt that the economics of natural gas would be more competitive and result in lower energy prices. He also mentioned energy efficiency as a significantly economic option as well as upgrades to your existing plants. I, frankly, didn't disagree with a thing Mr. Rowe said in an almost hour-long speech, so it was very telling. But now I look at the speech a little differently. When I see, first, do no harm, do you think he would use that title again but with a very different focus?
PARDEEWell, I certainly can't speculate entirely to what John is thinking. I can tell you that I have the clear responsibility to assure John and the board and our shareholders that our operating units are safe. And this is a twice daily conversation with John as the events continue to unfold in Japan. So, while I understand your question, thus far, we are working very hard with the industry and other technical experts, and we continue to challenge ourselves on the ongoing safety of our units. And John very clearly holds us accountable to be able to provide that assuredness, and that's exactly what we're doing.
REHMAll right. Thank you so much for joining us. Chip Pardee, he's chief operating officer for Exelon Generation. Thanks again. And turning...
PARDEEYou're welcome, Diane. My pleasure.
REHM...to you now Charles. The NRC has warned U.S. citizens in Japan to evacuate within a 50-mile radius of the plant. Now, the U.S. is sending planes to evacuate those who wish to leave Japan while 50 workers at the plant are still trying to cool down, to put water in, knowing it's a suicide mission.
FERGUSONWell, Diane, I'm not quite sure it's a suicide mission. I don't know if I want to use that term, and I've also heard terms like skeleton crew used in the newspapers. And this is such a serious time right now. I would just advise all of us to speak carefully with that kind of language. It's my understanding that it's more than 50 workers. They're rotating in workers to try to minimize radiation exposure. And if things get worse, perhaps it could be a suicide-type mission. But I think it's not quite like the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986, which happened about 25 years ago, in which we saw over 30 emergency workers putting their lives at risk. They knew that it was a suicide mission for them. It's still not clear at this stage whether it's a suicide mission yet for those workers at Fukushima.
REHMOlder workers are going in. And the statement made last night was that they felt that these older workers would die of old age before they died of radiation poisoning, but they knew that they were putting their lives at risk. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. It's time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Truro, Mass. Good morning, Richard. You're on the air.
RICHARDHi. Thank you. I wanted to say, first of all, that I don't think it's possible for there to be such a thing as safe nuclear power and largely because the first thing that happens is that uranium has to be taken out of the ground. It's an intense and dangerous operation, and it's usually poor people in this country is -- usually Native Americans from the Southwest who suffer enormous health consequences for mining uranium. I don't hear it discussed very often, but it should be the first line of discussion anytime anyone talked about nuclear power and if it could possibly be safe. Because, if you can't supply the fuel safely, regardless of all the other issues, it can't possibly be a safe way to generate energy.
REHMAll right. Angie.
HOWARDThank you and thank you for your question. First of all, we have to look at every energy source as having some risks and some benefits. And the existing plants today in the United States are operating and providing safe and reliable power. As you talk about uranium mining, though, it's important to do it correctly. And in the early days, where we were developing weapons program in the United States, we did do some mining that, perhaps, was not done with the best environmental concerns in mind. Today, that is much different around the world with mines that are operated in Canada, in Australia and in other places in the world. So I think the mining industry has changed significantly.
HOWARDBut I also would like to remind the listener that we have an agreement with Russia on taking blended down nuclear weapons. So weapons that once were pointed at the United Sates are now providing fuel for our reactors here. Roughly half of the uranium that's used in our plants today is coming from blended down nuclear weapons, and so it's a clearly a benefit from a world peace standpoint.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Harrisburg, Pa. Good morning, Mike.
MIKEGood morning. How are you all today?
REHMI'm fine. Thank you.
MIKESee, I wanted to talk about the safety factor. You know, I lived near Three Mile Island, and I remember it very well. It would seem to me common sense that we don't build nuclear plants on top of active fault lines. We wouldn't be talking about this if there hadn't been the tsunami. I think that the reactor in Japan, the (word?) reactor would have been fine.
REHMOkay. Mike, I'm afraid we're losing you. But I certainly get the impact of your message. Charles.
FERGUSONI agree. We shouldn't build nuclear plants right at the fault lines...
REHMWhy do we?
FERGUSONRight. Well, I studied actual nuclear earthquakes while on my doctorate in physics at Boston University. I'm not a geophysicist by training, but I study strikes and faults, like in California, and it's a very complex science. We can't predict earthquakes. We could try to forecast like we do with weather.
REHMNo, I understand that. But, certainly, near fault lines...
REHM...makes the possibility or the prospect of damage and severe damage that much greater.
FERGUSONLook at Japan. Japan, it has these trade-offs. They feel that they are energy-insecure. Go back to the Arab oil embargo, 1973. At that time, Japan was using -- generating its electricity from -- two-thirds of it from oil and very dependent on foreign oil 'cause it didn't have source of oil and -- or coal or natural gas domestically. So the trade-off seemed to be that -- go more into nuclear. Of course, longer term, I think they should go more into renewables -- wind and solar and geothermal -- but it takes a long time to ramp up those sources.
VANCKOI just wanted to interject something I learned yesterday. It's not something I knew. And that is that a number of the plants that are located on faults today, those faults were found after the plants were built and sited, interestingly. Not everyone -- it's not that somebody said, oh, here's a fault. Let's build on it. But, in effect, that's what happened. They just found out after the fact.
HOWARDWell -- and, in fact, that's part of the reason that we continually look and provide upgrades both from a regulatory perspective, as Chip mentioned, of 2009. And our (word?) report looked at upgrades that might be needed. But, again, I think you also have to look at -- we do know a lot about engineering for ground movement and earthquake protection. We've seen that in construction of buildings. And I would also, you know, suggest that your listeners also look at the geologic conditions that, here -- even in the United States are much different than what we have in Japan.
REHMNow, we do have China and Switzerland delaying their plans for new plants. Germany has temporarily shut down older responses -- older reactors. What do you think is going to happen around the world?
VANCKOI'm not sure I can speak to what's going to happen around the world. I'm pretty focused on what's going to happen here and what is happening in Japan. And what, I think, is going to happen here is we're going to have a lot of lessons learned. I agree with Angie, and I agree with Chip, that the industry spends an awful lot of time trying to learn from what it might have done wrong and improve systems based on new information and new technology. But this learning is going to take time. We don't know all the lessons we're going to learn from Japan.
VANCKOSo, number one, we shouldn't presume we know everything. Nobody should ever say it can't happen here. We may not have a 6 -- 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by a massive tsunami. And so, you know, when you say it can happen here, it may only be right in the sense that the conditions and the impacts would be different.
REHMAre you all, however, saying that there is no way to construct a completely safe nuclear reactor?
FERGUSONDiane, that's a great question. I address that in my book, "Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs To Know." It's a question of, should we have a zero tolerance policy on nuclear safety? I used to work at the U.S. State Department Office of Nuclear Safety, and the philosophy there and among regulatory agencies in the industry is that a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. It's with an allusion to Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech "Letter from Birmingham Jail." But -- so the view is that we're all on the same boat. If there is a major accident anywhere on the world, it can affect the whole global industry, but it's not too strange of a standard.
FERGUSONSo I do hear some people in the industry now saying, well, even if we experience something like a worst-case accident here in Japan and it ends up being not that bad in terms of human health's perspective, maybe, and ultimately, that's good for the industry 'cause it shows the industry could recover from a worst-case event and to demonstrate to people that the tsunami killed far more people than the nuclear accident.
VANCKODiane, I'd like to just make a comment as well. Nothing is 100 percent safe, nothing in the world that we do. And if we look at and are serious about our air quality, on climate change and protecting our -- the air that we breathe, we need more clean energy. We need to develop the renewables. We need to develop clean coal technologies, but we also need to...
REHMThere is no such thing as a clean coal technology.
VANCKOWell, we're looking very hard. Well, I'm not going to get into that. We're talking about nuclear. But the industry and the government are looking at ways of removing carbon, and we also do remove some of those. But if we don't use nuclear at 20 percent base load power, generating it without emitting greenhouse gases and controlled pollutants, the impact on public and health and safety would be even greater.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Anne Arbor, Mich. and to Allen. Good morning to you.
ALLENGood morning, Diane.
REHMI'm sorry, sir. If you're on a speaker phone, I can barely hear you.
ALLENOh, yeah, here I am.
ALLENThank you. Good morning, Diane.
ALLENThis is a -- it could be the worst calamity ever blowing in the wind, unfolding in slow motion, particularly in this unit three reactor. There is plutonium fuel, this mixed oxide fuel. It's really -- it's a crime against humanity. It's just that plutonium is put in a place where it could be dispersed. Would you have your people talk about the plutonium is poisonous, that the plume coming out of there hits the United States tomorrow?
FERGUSONWell, Diane, I've actually been to the plutonium facility in Japan about three-and-a-half years ago -- the Rokkasho facility -- and it seemed -- just taking a day-long tour there, it's very professionally run, very clean, very secure. However, the concerns are that Japan is sitting on a big stockpile of separated plutonium that could potentially be used to make nuclear weapons, so that makes the Chinese nervous, to say the least. And so Japan is very much a latent nuclear weapons state. In addition, your caller raised his concern that if there's a severe accident or rupture at unit three, that can -- who uses this plutonium mixed oxide fuel -- that the health hazards could be greater, and that is a concern. I don't -- I'm not saying it's very likely to happen, but it's something that it does call into question the use of plutonium in these fuels.
REHMEllen, where are the greatest risks in this country?
VANCKOThe greatest risks come from people who are not operating the reactors as safely and securely as they can, who have not evaluated them for the best way to ensure...
REHMAnd how often are they evaluated?
VANCKOWell, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regularly evaluates a very small percentage of events of nuclear...
VANCKOIt's my understanding that it's about 5 percent. So if you have a thousand incidents, they may investigate 50. And, as a matter of fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists has had a report in the works for about six to eight months now that specifically looks at the Nuclear Regulatory's safety oversight performance in 2010. This has been done by our nuclear safety expert, Dave Lochbaum. And at 11 o'clock today, we will be releasing this report to the public, and it's titled, "The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010."
REHMAnd its conclusions?
VANCKOBasically, what it concludes is that the NRC has found a series of -- well, Dave looked at 14 special inspections that the NRC launched that affect troubling events at the plant's safety equipment problems and security shortcomings. And the report provides an overview of each one of these. And the overview shows that many of these significant events occurred because reactor owners and, often, the NRC tolerated known safety problems. The report not only points to three oversight activities that the NRC performs very well and actually prevented more significant events from happening. So it's not that the NRC is not capable and doesn't have the people to do the job that it's supposed to do, but the report also finds -- examines three specific events where the NRC could have done a better job.
VANCKOI can't really go into the details of it. Like I said, we're going to have a press conference and release this report in a couple of minutes, and a lot more details would be available by then.
REHMAnd, Angie, the question for you would be how much self-regulation is going on at these power plants?
HOWARDWell, I would also like to add that every nuclear power plant has NRC resident inspectors that work at those stations, and they are there -- many of them on multiple shifts during the plant. So you have resident inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at this...
REHMAt every single one.
HOWARDAt every plant. And then...
REHMThen how does that jive with what you just said?
HOWARDWell, I think what Ellen was saying is they looked at specific events that occurred at plants, and we're trying to learn from that and how...
REHMWhat kinds of events?
HOWARDWell, I'm not -- I haven't seen the report.
REHMWhat kinds of events?
VANCKOThey -- there are many things that occur at a nuclear plant that are done by many, many people every minute of every day. So it could be something as simple as leaving a rag on the floor. It could be a water leak.
REHMBut, surely, we're not talking about leaving rags on the floors.
HOWARDBut, I think, the important thing -- to come back -- you asked about the industry's self-regulation. The industry does have, through the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an evaluation, a very detailed, in-depth evaluation of the operations, also of training. And there's a program to review all of these types of events that Ellen is mentioning, very minor events, to see if there's something that we can learn from them...
REHMWell, I'm -- I'd like to...
HOWARD...and share that information.
REHM...understand exactly how minor these are.
HOWARDNot all of them are minor, Diane. Roughly extorting out electrical equipment, security problems that would have allowed people to enter the plant or did allow people to enter the plant that shouldn't have without appropriate clearances, pumps that malfunction, valves that stick open when they should be closed or closed when they should be open. I mean, it is -- they are very real events. And, luckily for us, none of them have led to a negative consequence yet, but they're occurring.
REHMAll right. And to Norman in Palm City, Fla. You're on the air.
NORMANYes. Hello, Diane.
REHMYes. Go right ahead, sir.
NORMANI think -- you know, the reactors did their job. They did not react to the -- they did not react negatively to the earthquake. Now, the tsunami is a Japanese word. They know a lot about tsunamis. Now, considering all of this, why were the reactors built so close to the shoreline? Couldn't the reactors have been built further inland, just five to 10 miles, so that they could've escaped the damage of the tsunamis?
FERGUSONWell, it's -- one, it's a matter of convenience having the nuclear power plants right on the coast, near available sea water. It's a great cooling system, the Pacific Ocean. On the other hand, they had a seawall as well to prevent tsunami wave coming in, but the wave that came in exceeded the seawall height. This is such an extraordinary event. It was off the charts historically. But I think what we should be asking a question about is the emergency diesel generators. Why were they located where they were, that they were susceptible to this kind of damage from flooding from the tsunami? That points to, perhaps, a safety error, an error in the plant design.
REHMAngie, I know you were at Three Mile Island a week after that disaster. What do you remember from being there?
HOWARDProbably most -- and what made the biggest impression on me was that I was in the unit two building and in the control room. I did not receive any radiation. I did have radiation dosimetry on me and that -- as serious and as damaged as the fuel was -- and at that time we did not know how much it was damaged -- I didn't receive any radiation, and I was in the control room at unit two. And people were working there.
REHMAngie Howard, she's former executive with the Nuclear Energy Institute, Ellen Vancko of the Nuclear Energy and Climate Change, project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. Thank you all so much. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is drshow.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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