Japan’s Nuclear Reactor Containment Intact, U.S. NRC Says

Radiation containment units at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear reactors are intact and the situation at the plant “is on the verge of stabilizing,” a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official said.

Pools of water used to prevent fuel rods from overheating at units 3 and 4 are stabilizing, Bill Borchardt, executive director for operations, said today at a commission meeting in Rockville, Maryland. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said progress is being made in restoring power to reactors No. 1 and No. 2, and plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it had restored electric power to No. 3 and No. 4.

“Containment at units 1, 2 and 3 appear to be functional,” Borchardt said. “The fact that offsite power is close to being available for use at plant equipment is perhaps the first optimistic sign that things could be turning around.”

The nuclear regulator plans a review of all 104 U.S. reactors to assess safety after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11 disabled cooling systems at the six-reactor Fukushima plant. Explosions, fires and radiation leaks led to the worst nuclear disaster in a quarter century.

“I don’t see a significant weakness” with the ability of U.S. reactors to withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, Borchardt said today.

The NRC plans a 90-day review of reactor safety to assess preparations at the U.S. plants and will publish the findings, Borchardt said. A report on the NRC’s initial findings would be released after 30 days, he said.

Safeguards Reviewed

After the NRC’s 90-day review, the agency may require extra safeguards at U.S. plants if needed, Borchardt said. The NRC will keep studying Japan’s nuclear crisis looking for possible actions to boost U.S. reactor safety, he said.

“We have an obligation to the American people to undertake a systematic and methodical review of the safety of our own domestic nuclear facilities in light of the natural disaster and the resulting nuclear situation in Japan,” NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said today.

The agency’s plan is “probably the best way to deal with this situation,” David Lochbaum, director of nuclear safety at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said today on a conference call with reporters. A cause for the failures at the Fukushima plant hasn’t been determined and “it would be difficult for the NRC to jump to the right answers from what they know today,” Lochbaum said.

Radiation Reach

Obama administration officials have said radiation from the Japanese plant won’t reach the U.S. They’ve also downplayed the risk of a similar crisis at U.S. nuclear plants.

Japan’s earthquake occurred in a “subduction zone,” where one tectonic plate is pushed under another, the NRC said in a statement on its website. Such regions produce the biggest temblors. The U.S. has one subduction zone, off the coasts of northern California, Oregon and Washington state, the NRC said.

Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Washington, is the only U.S. nuclear plant near this subduction zone. Its location, 225 miles (362 kilometers) from the coast, shields the plant from powerful earthquakes and tsunamis that may occur in the zone, according to the NRC.

Nuclear reactors built close to the coast in Southern California are near “slip faults” that produce quakes with magnitude less than Japan’s 9.0, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” broadcast.

“You simply don’t get nines from those kinds of faults,” Chu said.

Diablo Canyon

PG&E Corp.’s Diablo Canyon seaside nuclear plant in earthquake-prone California has been built to withstand “all environmental hazards in the region,” including a tsunami and an earthquake of as much as 7.5 magnitude, said Kory Raftery, a PG&E spokesman.

U.S. nuclear plants are built to withstand the “maximum credible” natural disasters for their location, including earthquakes and tsunamis, according to the NRC.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has called for Entergy Corp.’s Indian Point nuclear plant to be closed. The plant is about 24 miles north of New York City.

New York Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy is scheduled to meet tomorrow with NRC officials to discuss the plant’s safety, according to a statement from Cuomo’s office.

While the Indian Point plant is safe, the NRC may “look at whether this reactor should remain” after Japan’s nuclear emergency, which prompted U.S. officials to recommend a 50-mile evacuation zone for Americans near the Fukushima site, Chu said.

Entergy’s Indian Point plant “is safe and designed with a margin of safety beyond the strongest earthquake anticipated in the area,” Chanel Lagarde, a Entergy spokesman, said in an e-mail. The utility company is “fully supportive” of the meeting between New York and NRC officials, Lagarde said.

“We strongly believe that knowing the facts will answer the questions on the public’s minds,” Lagarde said.

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