US officials see progress in Japan, questions linger about domestic plans

Two senior U.S. officials said Sunday that they see signs of improvement at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan while signaling that the Japanese catastrophe could affect domestic nuclear decisions in the future.

“I think with each passing hour, each passing day, things are more under control. And so, step by step, they are making very good progress,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in the morning on “Fox News Sunday.”

Asked on CNN is the worst is over, Chu said, “we believe so” but added: “I don't want to make a blanket statement.”

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said on C-SPAN Sunday morning that radiation levels appear to be dropping while acknowledging the challenge of receiving accurate information about conditions in Japan, where workers are trying to bring overheating reactors and spent fuel under control.

The Department of Energy has deployed equipment to the region, and Jaczko said his agency — which has also dispatched staff to Japan — is doing its best to stay informed.

“We are getting information from a variety of different sources, including from some of these Department of Energy assets, but those are not necessarily giving us the direct information at the site,” Jaczko said.

“We believe that right now the radiation levels at the site are high, but we have some indications that they may be coming down,” he later added.

U.S. officials are reviewing the safety of the domestic reactor fleet, and Chu said decisions about where future nuclear plants would be located might be affected by the Japanese crisis.

“Certainly where you site reactors and where we site reactors going forward will be different than where we might have sited them in the past, I would say,” he said on Fox News Sunday.

Chu predicted there will be a fresh look at evacuation plans for the Indian Point nuclear plant about 35 miles from New York City. “I think . . . the evacuation plans of the Indian Point reactor will be looked at and studied in great detail. The Indian Point reactor is not in the situation like in Japan, but I think, again, we will be looking at whether those evacuation plans are adequate,” he said. 

“We're going to have to look at whether this reactor should remain,” he added later.

But he cautioned that decisions about the plant are the NRC's jurisdiction. The license for one of the plant’s units expires in 2013 and Entergy Corp. is seeking renewal, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has called for shutting the plant down.

“It's an NRC decision, but the NRC will be looking at that, I'm sure, based on events. But again, this is not to say that we believe that reactor is unsafe. We believe that reactor is safe,” Chu said.

President Obama and Chu have emphasized that U.S plants are safe and their support for a nuclear role in the country's future energy mix, while vowing to incorporate lessons from the Japanese crisis.

The NRC is undertaking a safety review, and Jaczko said Sunday he would not rule out changes to the licensing process as power companies seek renewals and permission to build the first fleet of new U.S. reactors in decades.

“We certainly want to get good information, and if that good information tells us that we need to make changes to our licensing process, then we will do that,” Jaczko said, but he also lauded the strength of existing U.S. requirements prevent loss of cooling at plants if they lose electric power.

“We think we have a program in place that would deal with the kinds of situations that we are seeing in Japan, but I want to stress that what they are dealing with in Japan is a very, very difficult situation and that there will be plenty of opportunity when this crisis is resolved to really figure out what happened and how we can all learn from it,” he said.

Jaczko also said the NRC is not backing off its decision announced March 10 — the day before the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan — to extend the license for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant for another 20 years. The reactor has the same GE design as the stricken Japanese plant.

But Sunday brought fresh signs the Obama administration’s posture — committing to new safety reviews while supporting nuclear energy going forward — is going to draw continued attacks from some liberal lawmakers.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a longtime critic of the industry, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that the Japanese crisis "is calling into question of the viability of nuclear power in this country.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in a March 18 letter to President Obama, said the NRC safety review that Obama ordered is insufficient and called for a Presidential Commission on Nuclear Safety that would include independent scientists and experts.

Sanders wants a moratorium on any NRC relicensing or approval of new plants until the commission can conduct its own review and Congress can consider any legislative changes.

But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” cautioned against turning away from nuclear power.

“I think there ought to be a period here where all of our nuclear plants are tested very, very carefully to make sure that they are safe and to make sure that this cannot happen here. But I don't think that we can say that we're not going to continue to use nuclear power,” he said, noting that unlike fossil fuels it does not contribute to global warming.