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U.S. nuclear plants safe and will apply lessons from Japan crisis

By Marvin Fertel, Special to CNN
  • Marvin Fertel: Possibility of a natural disaster hitting a nuclear plant can't be ruled out
  • Nation's 104 nuclear energy plants exceed regulations, but are being inspected, he says
  • Fertel confident U.S. plants, operators can handle a disaster like Japan's
  • Fertel: Japan is more vulnerable to seismic activity and tsunamis than the U.S.

Editor's note: Marvin Fertel is president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which is a policy organization for the nuclear energy industry.

(CNN) -- The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crisis in Japan understandably caused many Americans to worry and ask: Could that happen here? It's the most frequent question I've received in the past two weeks.

The answer is twofold: First, one can never entirely rule out the possibility of a natural disaster battering even a super-hardened industrial facility. That's why the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strict standards and why the industry exceeds them for safety, security and emergency preparedness at U.S. reactors.

Second, because it would be foolish to rule out such possibilities, the U.S. nuclear energy industry will do what it has done since the Three Mile Island accident 32 years ago -- apply the lessons learned from Fukushima to make American nuclear energy facilities even safer than they are today.

This is, in fact, already happening.

At every one of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants, employees are verifying each power station's capability to withstand severe conditions, including the loss of significant operational and safety systems. They also are verifying that the system to mitigate a total loss of electric power to a nuclear power plant is proper and functional.

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This will require inspections verifying that all required materials are adequate and properly staged and the capability to fight flooding and the impact of floods on systems inside and outside the plant.

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These steps are being taken even though every U.S. nuclear power plant is designed to withstand the most extreme earthquake possible in its location, considering local geology and seismology. The plants are similarly designed to withstand flooding and, where appropriate, tsunamis.

The two nuclear power stations in California, for example, have some of the most stringent earthquake requirements. And think back just a bit: Nuclear power plants have safely shut down during the blackout of 2003 and withstood extreme hurricanes, including Katrina in the Gulf Coast and Andrew in South Florida.

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It is with the utmost admiration for the heroic efforts under way in Japan that I express my belief that U.S. nuclear power plants and the professionals who operate them are equipped and trained to manage severe natural and plant-centered events similar to those at Fukushima.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, all U.S. nuclear energy facilities underwent comprehensive reviews by members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The objective was to test for responses to severe events that went beyond NRC requirements and to identify additional protective measures that assure U.S. plants can withstand them.

The assessments resulted in enhancements such as alternative methods to provide cooling water into fuel pools; procedures and additional equipment to fight very large fires; and more response strategies to get safety equipment to the plants even if all offsite power is unavailable and emergency backup sources don't work.

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The imagery from Japan, as unsettling as it is, has a context. That nation is remarkably vulnerable to seismic activity and tsunamis. We should not extrapolate earthquake and tsunami data from one location in the world to another when evaluating the risks of natural hazards.

Nonetheless, the global nuclear industry will conduct an exhaustive inventory of lessons learned from Fukushima and incorporate safety enhancements to existing plants and new plant designs.

We did so after the Three Mile Island accident, which did not result in adverse health consequences precisely because the plant did what it was designed to do. It minimized the release of radiation to levels less than natural background even during a severe accident.

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We will do so again, because one of the things that the world needs, and that the Japanese people certainly will need as they work to rebound from this devastation, is clean, reliable electricity sources capable of withstanding the worst that nature throws at us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marvin Fertel.

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