Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant: The WikiBook/March 15, 2011 Congressional Rollcall

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Lawmakers Question U.S. Nuclear Safety Standards

CQ Roll Call
Tuesday, March 15, 2011

As Japan struggles to contain a string of fires and explosions at an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant, lawmakers are asking whether U.S. facilities could withstand a similar natural catastrophe.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California said she is particularly concerned that two nuclear plants in her state near San Luis Obispo — Diablo Canyon and San Onofre — are designed to withstand earthquakes only up to magnitude 7 and 7.5. The earthquake that devastated Japan last week measured 9.

“We very well may have hearings,” said Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee.

Similar concerns were raised Tuesday by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Lois Capps of California said there is an 82 percent probability of a magnitude 7 earthquake in the region over the next 30 years and a 37 percent probability of a magnitude 7.5 quake.

The lawmakers noted there are eight nuclear reactors on the seismically active West Coast and 27 near the Midwest’s New Madrid fault, many with the same design as the disabled reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

“We are concerned that these reactors may not have the features necessary to withstand the sort of catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that has crippled several reactors in Japan and caused a meltdown and release of the highly radioactive materials contained within them,” the lawmakers wrote.

At the same time, Energy Secretary Steven Chu reiterated the administration’s support for a clean-energy standard, which would require utilities to produce some of their electricity from low-polluting sources such as nuclear power, renewable fuels, clean-burning coal technologies and natural gas. Chu and NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko continue to voice confidence that U.S. generators are built to the highest safety standards.

But Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., said the Japanese thought their plants were well-designed, too. She said the Fukushima Daiichi plant was designed to cope with a 6.5-meter tsunami. Instead, 7-meter floodwaters poured in, shutting down generators that ran critical cooling systems.

“You know, should we be building nuclear power plants in places that are the highest risk factors for earthquakes and tsunamis?” Landrieu asked. “That’s a question that needs an answer. And if we are building there in our own country and places like Japan, are we building to the standards high enough?”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he supports hearings into lessons of the Japan disaster but warned against “rambunctious” rhetoric.

“I don’t think there should be a mad rush to say nuclear power generation is bad,” he said. “I think we need a timeout and take a look at it.”

Safety Record

Republican lawmakers continued to stress the nuclear industry’s safety record.

“When was the last time we had an earthquake and tsunami in this country?” said Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, calling the event possibly unique.

Kentucky Republican Edward Whitfield, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, also emphasized the industry’s safety record, but said he would press Jaczko and Chu for answers on U.S. preparedness at a budget hearing Wednesday. Jaczko will later brief Senate Environment and Public Works Committee members.

Chu told House appropriators Tuesday that the administration continues to back federal programs to advance nuclear plant construction and wants Congress to provide $36 billion in loan guarantee authority.

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist assured lawmakers that the 104 U.S. commercial reactors follow “rigorous safety regulations,” and he promised to learn “from Japan’s experience as we work to continue to strengthen America’s nuclear industry.”

His confidence was echoed by the Nuclear Energy Institute, which told reporters that American nuclear power plants were built to withstand all anticipated natural disasters.

“It’s going to take a long time to fully understand what’s happened in Japan,” said Anthony R. Pietrangelo, the trade group’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer. He said government’s response should not be to tighten safety regulations on existing nuclear power plants or those on the drawing board.

Feinstein said it is premature to assess the impact on U.S. policies.

“We’re in the midst of a very difficult situation,” she said. “I think we ought to see what happens.”