I was serving as a commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at that time and remember vividly testifying before House and Senate committees on security issues. Members of Congress spoke of shutting down the essential nuclear energy facilities, arming them with mobile missile systems or surrounding them with large steel monoliths to protect against commercial airliners.
What we did then, and what we need to do right now while events still unfold at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site, is avoid a rush to judgment. We should allow the NRC time to conduct an in-depth review of the events that occurred and make common sense recommendations for assuring safe operation of U.S. reactors.
After the 9/11 attacks, the NRC, in concert with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, undertook a comprehensive review of the nation’s nuclear power plants. The agencies sought to determine if there were steps that would enhance the ability of utilities to respond to terrorist attacks, as well as mitigate the effects of large fires and explosions that could result from these activities.
In addition to these site-specific comprehensive reviews, the NRC required electric utilities to undertake an assessment of measures to protect the reactor and spent fuel storage pools in the event of large fires and explosions that could potentially disable emergency cooling and emergency power functions at the site.
The NRC then required the companies to implement these mitigation measures, some of which are classified, that significantly enhanced the ability to pump cooling water into the reactor and restore power from external sources. These same steps taken by U.S. utilities would protect reactors against severe natural events, such as those we’ve seen in the past two weeks. In short, they have made safety and security at America’s nuclear power plants even more robust.
Congress would be well-advised to heed the counsel of President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who support a comprehensive NRC review of existing reactors, and who also recognize we must continue along the path of building new nuclear power plants, as U.S. electricity demand will increase by 28 percent by 2035.
Based in part on these recommendations, the NRC is conducting a two-pronged review of U.S. nuclear power plant safety. The NRC task force conducting this review will consist of NRC senior managers, as well as retired NRC experts, who have relevant experience in this area. They will report their findings to the Commission on 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals.
As Congress returns to Washington from a brief recess, House and Senate committees will conduct hearings and briefings to review the events that have taken place in Japan. There will be members on both sides of this issue who will stake out positions on what has happened and what we are to make of it all.
Some members of Congress will be tempted to use these forums as opportunity to demand the NRC take more immediate action at U.S. reactors.
It would be wise for them to consider the British World War II slogan: “Keep calm and carry on.”
Now is not the time for rash judgments about America’s nuclear power stations, which produce one-fifth of all electricity. Give the NRC time to study the still unfolding events, inspect capabilities at U.S. plants and develop common sense, yet protective measures that will maintain U.S. leadership in safe nuclear energy technology and operation.
Jeffrey Merrifield was a commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1998-2007 and currently is a senior vice president with The Shaw Group Inc.