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Nuclear crisis might affect location of US plants

US reviewing storage of spent fuel at reactors

‘We have to learn from those accidents and go forward,’ Energy Secretary Steven Chu said of US nuclear safety. ‘We have to learn from those accidents and go forward,’ Energy Secretary Steven Chu said of US nuclear safety.
By Matthew Daly
Associated Press / March 21, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Energy Secretary Steven Chu suggested yesterday that Japan’s nuclear crisis might make it less likely that new nuclear reactors are built near large American cities, just one of many safety changes that could be forthcoming as US officials review reactor safety.

“Certainly where we site reactors going forward will be different than where we might have sited them in the past,’’ Chu said in response to questions about the Indian Point nuclear plant near New York City. “Any time there is a serious accident, we have to learn from those accidents and go forward.’’

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said his agency will again review how nuclear plants in the United States store spent fuel from nuclear reactors. The state of the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been a major concern as Japanese officials try to bring the reactors under control.

“Five days ago everybody was worried about earthquakes and tsunamis and the reactors cooling,’’ NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko said. “Today everybody is worried about the spent fuel pools. Until this is resolved we are not going to ultimately know what the most important factors are in terms of what needs to be addressed.’’

The Food and Drug Administration said the United States is not importing any foods from the affected area of Japan, and the agency is working with Customs and Border Patrol to screen other Japanese food imports to make sure they are not tainted. They are also checking food that may have passed through Japan.

The FDA said it expects no risk to the US food supply from radiation contamination. Japanese foods make up less than 4 percent of all US imports; the most common are seafood, snack foods, and processed fruits and vegetables.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, US officials took steps to make sure that nuclear reactors could withstand an attack as well as earthquakes and other natural disasters. In the days after the Japan earthquake and tsunami, President Obama asked for another safety review.

In an appearance yesterday on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers,’’ Jaczko emphasized that the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States are required to have redundant systems — “a backup to the backup’’ — to ensure that a loss of power will not cripple their ability to cool the spent fuel pools. In Japan, the backup generators were inoperable.

Jaczko set off alarms last week after saying that all the water was gone from one of the spent fuel pools at Japan’s most troubled nuclear plant, raising the possibility of widespread nuclear fallout. Japanese officials denied the pool was dry.

Jaczko said yesterday he was comfortable that his earlier remarks were accurate, but he added that Japanese officials have spent the past several days trying to put water into the spent fuel pools, among other steps they are taking to stem the nuclear disaster. “So we’re dealing with a very different situation now,’’ he said.

Chu voiced optimism about the Japanese crisis in interviews on “Fox News Sunday’’ and CNN’s “State of the Union.’’ “I think with each passing hour, each passing day, things are more under control. And so, step by step, they are making very good progress,’’ he said.

Still, Chu and other officials said serious problems remain at the stricken nuclear complex. Pressure unexpectedly rose in a reactor, meaning plant operators may need to deliberately release radioactive steam. That has only added to public anxiety over radiation that began leaking from the plant after the monstrous earthquake and tsunami left the plant unstable.

In the United States, lessons learned from the safety studies could affect the NRC’s review of pending applications for new nuclear plants, including the types of reactor designs being proposed, Jaczko said.

Representative Ed Markey said the crisis called into question the viability of nuclear power in the United States.

“We should understand that it’s very difficult for us to guarantee that a catastrophic meltdown cannot happen in our country,’’ the Malden, Mass., Democrat said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat, said the Japanese crisis should not cause the United States to turn away from nuclear power.

There should be careful testing of plants to make sure they are safe, but “I don’t think that we can say that we’re not going to continue to use nuclear power,’’ Levin said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.’’

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