NEW YORK - Just 100 days after a deadly earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, concerns are being raised about several U.S. nuclear stations that are facing natural disasters of their own.
Rising floodwaters from the Missouri River are threatening to damage Nebraska's Fort Calhoun Station and Iowa's Cooper Nuclear Station, while a raging forest fire is advancing towards the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The Los Alamos lab has been shut down since Monday, one day after a wildfire was sparked in the Santa Fe National Forest, while Fort Calhoun has been closed since mid-April for routine refueling. It remains closed, as floodwaters have crept up to 306 metres above sea level – 2.4 metres short of the plant's threshold "design base".
Floodwaters at Cooper station are also below shut-down levels, "and the river would have to rise several feet even beyond that to reach a point where we'd be talking about Cooper's design base," Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) spokesperson Scott Burnell told IPS.
Still, many are comparing the United States' readiness for a disaster with Japan's emergency response in March.
"There's certain ways we're a little bit better [prepared], because 9/11 happened in this country and not in Japan," Dave Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) nuclear safety project, told IPS.
He noted that after the Sep. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the NRC required plant owners to upgrade their protection, and most plants now have portable power generators and pumps.
"While that equipment was installed to protect against acts by terrorists, they would also be useful... to help against acts of nature," he explained.
He added, however, that no plant could withstand the devastation at Fukushima.
"If you give any plant in the world that kind of challenge," he said, "they're all going to end up in that same position. They just weren't designed for that."
The NRC's Burnell described the safety regulations at sites across the country. In Florida, for example, plants are designed to withstand hurricane-force winds, while in the Midwest, engineers plan for "the most significant earthquake that could be expected".
"The bottom line is, the United States nuclear power plants are designed to safely withstand the most severe events that can be expected at each individual site," Burnell said.
But for some, those assurances are not enough. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed his intention to shut down the Indian Point Energy Center, located 56 kilometres north of Manhattan.
A top advisor in Cuomo's administration met with Indian Point staff last week and discussed the governor's intentions for the Buchanan plant, which lies near a fault line.
While, according to Burnell, "the NRC continues to find that all 104 nuclear power plants in the United States are meeting their requirements to operate safely," Paul Gunter of the watchdog Beyond Nuclear had a different response.
He pointed to NRC oversights in terms of electrical circuitry, cables unqualified to be submerged underwater, and inadequate plans for safe shutdowns.
"There are a whole host of issues," he told IPS, describing a "very cosy relationship between the federal regulator and the nuclear power industry".
The UCS's Lochbaum noted another major concern: about half the country's plants do not meet fire protection regulations, and, he said, nothing is being done about it.
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"The NRC does a really good job of setting the regulations at the right height," he explained. "We very seldom complain that the NRC needs to raise the safety bar to better protect the public.
"But," he added, "what we find is that the NRC is letting plants limbo beneath that bar and not enforcing the regulations."
Global action towards decommissioning
"While these nuclear accidents can be remote in occurrence," warned Gunter, "the consequences are unforgiving."
That is why an array of nations are taking action to phase out nuclear power, from heavily industrialised Germany, to Bulgaria, Malaysia, and Thailand, who have begun suspending licensing for new reactors.
"There is this broader recognition now that the verdict is in on nuclear power, and it is dirty, dangerous, and expensive," Gunter said. But he laments that the U.S. is straggling in the global shift to other energy sources.
"It was the United States that invented solar power," he chastised, "and yet countries like China are going to be the leaders in the manufacturing of this safer and increasingly less expensive renewable energy source."
While the USC also advocates for renewable energy, Lochbaum cautioned that the transition must be gradual.
"As today's nuclear power plants shut down... they'll be replaced by cheaper technologies, or better, technologies," he predicted.
"The renewables in the United States really aren't ready to step in and fill the void, but over the course of the next two decades or so, as today's nuclear power plants reach their lifetime, it's more likely to occur," he said, cautioning that too abrupt a switch could lead to the re-opening of coal-fired plants.
For Gunter, however, the shift cannot happen fast enough.
"While the costs of nuclear power are rapidly rising, along with the risks associated with this inherently dangerous technology, we're seeing tremendous advances in global expansion from renewable energy resources like solar and wind," he said.
He pointed to the association between nuclear power and nuclear weaponry, and emphasised the need to abandon both.
"There is this connection that [with] the spread of nuclear power, you have the trafficking of basic materials to build nuclear weapons," he explained, noting the possibility of technology falling into the hands of "countries like India, Pakistan, and North Korea".
He also noted the 'Superpower Mentality' – the idea that nuclear power and nuclear weapons signify global superpower status. "I believe that this is going to be an increasingly dangerous concept," he said.
The answer, for Gunter, is simple.
"We need to abandon this inherently dangerous industry for more affordable, safer, cleaner alternatives," he said. "That's where the energy renaissance truly is."