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Murkowski: This is no Chernobyl

By Lisa Murkowski, Special to CNN
  • Sen. Murkowski: Some have compared the Fukushima crisis to Chernobyl
  • She says Chernobyl was a much more serious accident
  • Murkowski: We will continue to rely on nuclear power to help meet U.S. energy needs
  • Nuclear industry is continually updating design, procedures to make plants safer, she says

Editor's note: Lisa Murkowski, the senior senator from Alaska, is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Energy Committee.

(CNN) -- There has been a lot of speculation about what impact the problems facing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan will have on the future of the United States' nuclear industry.

Some have compared the event to Chernobyl and declared the nuclear power renaissance dead. But that comparison is incorrect and the prediction premature. I believe nuclear power will continue to be a viable energy source in this country for decades to come. What the situation in Japan does provide is an opportunity to learn from their experiences to make our operations even safer.

Any discussion about what is happening at the Daiichi power plant must start with recognition and praise for the courageous efforts of workers on the ground who are trying to stabilize the reactors and prevent the release of harmful radiation. The stress these workers are under is extraordinary. They have been on the go around the clock for a week now, and are no doubt exhausted.

At the same time, many are dealing with the personal stress of losing loved ones and their homes and possessions in this earthquake and subsequent tsunami. It is easy for us to debate this issue from afar, but it's imperative that we keep the selfless acts of these individuals in mind as they work to prevent further damage and protect their countrymen.

Reactor during quake
'Model town' destroyed in tsunami
Japan tries to prevent nuclear disaster
Tsunami swallows roadway

Those concerned that the Daiichi power plant will become another Chernobyl must acknowledge that when the earthquake hit Japan, the nuclear reactors all automatically shut down as designed. Within seconds, the control rods were inserted into the reactor's core, the nuclear chain reaction stopped, and power levels dropped to about 7 percent of full power. The remaining power is the result of the radioactive isotopes from prior fission activity of the nuclear fuel producing decay heat. That decay heat is what must be removed from the reactor by cooling water and venting.

Unlike the reactors operated in the United States and the boiling water reactors in Japan, the Chernobyl reactor's power would increase in the event of the loss of water, which was used to cool the fuel. Key safety systems were disengaged during a test, exacerbating the situation and causing the loss of control of the plant.

The resulting power increase produced a situation in the core in which the fuel ruptured and the resulting steam explosions released radioactive material into the atmosphere. The basic conclusion from the International Atomic Energy Agency working groups is that the Chernobyl accident was the result of a combination of operator error, reactor design and the lack of a safety culture.

None of these factors apply to the Fukushima Daiichi units.

We should also keep in mind that a 40-year-old nuclear power plant withstood a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and shut down exactly as it was designed to do. The backup generators kicked in as they were supposed to, and even when a larger-than-anticipated tsunami flooded the generators, the reactor operators switched to emergency battery power, which lasted for eight hours.

Still, the underlying issue is whether nuclear reactors in the United States, now and in the future, are safe to operate and live around. The resounding answer to both issues is yes.

The U.S. nuclear industry has more than 50 years of operating experience and is continuously updating operating guidelines to make existing plants safer and more efficient. Designs for new nuclear reactors have inherent safety features that will shut down the reactor without any operator action or need for electric power or pumps; something that would have prevented the current situation in Japan.

There will almost certainly be lessons learned from the Daiichi event that can be incorporated into U.S. operations. Right now, however, the focus and priority need to be on stabilizing the Daiichi units and helping those who were so terribly affected by these natural disasters, not using the crisis to score political points.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Murkowski.

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