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An American Fukushima May Be Closer Than You Think

A catastrophic nuclear incident has the potential to displace millions of people from an area nearly as large as New Jersey.

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was horrific to watch unfold. It will take decades — and billions of dollars — to clean up, as more problems seem to emerge by the minute.

Most recently, Tepco announced that it’s still missing a large amount of spent fuel — in part because radiation remains so high that robots and other devices cannot function inside the plant to give workers a better picture of what’s going on.

The disaster and subsequent cleanup have attracted global attention, with many nations questioning whether they want to continue using nuclear power.

In the United States, Congress ordered the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a detailed study on the Fukushima disaster. The second part of that review was just released, and the results are ominous: The “devil’s scenario” that led to catastrophe at Fukushima could repeat itself on U.S. soil.

Worse yet, the NAS warns, the consequences of a Fukushima-like meltdown in the United States would be much more devastating than they were in Japan — a chilling thought.

There are two parts to the incredibly detailed study, which delves into precisely what happened at Fukushima and why the disaster occurred. Oddly enough, despite the chain of horrific events that led to a spectacular nuclear incident, it could have been worse.

The NAS found that a fortuitous leak in Unit 4′s reactor well actually kept the spent fuel pool cool covered long enough to prevent a devastating fire. But when it comes to nuclear power — with its tremendous possibilities for serious accidents — we cannot depend on random chance, the NAS warned.

A number of protective steps will be critical to avoid an American Fukushima.

In the report, the NAS lays out its recommendations for power plants in the U.S., starting with robust and redundant systems to monitor conditions inside of reactors in emergencies and maintain sufficient water levels.

In Fukushima, instrumentation that allowed plant workers to keep an eye on water levels, temperature and other characteristics ceased to function, leaving them in the dark. Similarly, the lack of robust redundant systems to keep the flow of water into the reactor pools steady made it impossible to stop the reactions that led to dangerous heating and, ultimately, explosions.

The NAS suggested that whether an incident was associated with a natural disaster, a plant breakdown or a terrorist attack, the resulting emergency could create vulnerabilities for “malevolent acts.”

The organization strongly recommends increasing security systems and training, as well as hardening power plants. Ideally, the plants could be self-encapsulated, equipped with their own backup power sources, water supplies and other infrastructure. In the event a plant is severely compromised or cut off from help, it should still be able to function and allow workers to control an emergency situation as quickly as possible.

Moreover, the agency expressed concerns about the handling of spent fuel. The United States keeps tremendous volumes of spent fuel in cooling pools before moving it to dry cask storage. The NAS advised that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission consider conducting a study to explore the feasibility of accelerated dry cask transfer and storage.

Since Fukushima, nuclear power plants have already spent $4 billion on safety improvements, and the costs of implementing NAS recommendations will be even higher. However, failure to invest in these modifications would be even more expensive: A catastrophic nuclear incident has the potential to displace millions of people from an area nearly as large as New Jersey.

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