Obama Should Call for an Independent Investigation of Nuclear Safety Here at Home

The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station remains dire and uncertain. Workers have valiantly sacrificed their health in their efforts to contain the crisis, but radiation continues to escape from the plant and officials have urged more people living nearby to evacuate. Our thoughts go out to the people of Japan as they endure this time of great fear and suffering.

While the full extent of the damage to people’s lives, property, and farmlands remains unknown, it is abundantly clear that nuclear power continues to pose grave risks. Clinging to the status quo will fail to protect against a similar catastrophic nuclear event happening here.

That is why on Friday NRDC sent a letter to President Obama calling on his leadership to move America to a safer energy future—one in which we can phase out older nuclear technologies with known design weaknesses, ensure the safe management of spent nuclear fuel, and increase our emergency preparedness. 

We urged the president to launch an independent inquiry into all safety issues at American nuclear power plants. We applaud his request for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review reactor safety, but we believe the administration must go farther. The magnitude of this disaster warrants a truly autonomous investigation, similar to the Kemeny Commission that examined the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

A review of the implications of this disaster cannot be limited to the NRC assessing the merits of its own previous rules and decisions. This would be problematic for any entity, but is especially challenging for the NRC, which has long been viewed as a weak regulator with insufficient separation from the industry it oversees. 

I recently served on the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, and we concluded that the government bears the ultimate responsibility for making sure energy operations meet maximum safety standards and have adequate oversight. The commission found both to be lacking for oil. NRDC’s nuclear experts have determined the same is true for the nuclear power sector. The Fukushima disaster provides a vivid illustration of why this must change.

An independent commission could help bring about these changes. It could objectively determine the national and global ramifications for siting and safe operation of nuclear power plants. It could also provide a credible assessment of the adequacy of what the NRC and the nuclear power industry will recommend as the appropriate responses to the accident. 

Even as an independent commission conducts its investigation, the NRC has a vital role to play in addressing the safety of our nation’s 104 nuclear power plants. Of particular and urgent concern are the boiling water reactors that are similar in design to the Fukushima units.

The NRC should direct plants that use boiling water reactors with elevated spent fuel storage pools to remove all spent fuel from wet pools as soon as it has cooled enough to be stored in dry casks.  We estimate that 60 thousand tons of spent fuel are stored nearby U.S. reactors, much of it in poorly protected and overloaded pools. At 31 reactors, these pools are placed above and outside the containment, as they are at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The NRC should also stop granting license renewals to plants in high seismic hazard areas until the findings of the NRC’s “90-day safety review” are finalized and vetted by the independent commission. And it should require that no reactor has an emergency generator located where it is subject to flooding or other potentially crippling damage.

By taking these steps and launching an independent commission, the Obama administration would ensure that we will use the lessons of this disaster to strengthen regulation of nuclear power generation in the U.S. and around the world.