Nuclear safety must be first priority

On Tuesday, Japan raised the severity level of its nuclear crisis to a seven, placing the meltdown at Fukushima on par with the disaster at Chernobyl.

This tragedy holds both lessons and warnings for the United States. America currently runs 104 nuclear reactors, which generate approximately 20 percent of our electricity. But not a single new domestic reactor has been ordered or permitted in more than 30 years.

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There is a reason nuclear has stalled, and it hasn’t been anti-nuclear protesters — it has been Wall Street investors.

Financial markets have determined that the costs and risks associated with building nuclear plants exceed their value. The permitting and construction of a nuclear reactor can take a decade or more, and can exceed $8 billion. By comparison, natural-gas and wind projects can move from the drawing board to full operation in just two to three years, and cost far less. In the last four years America has added 28,209 megawatts of wind, 36,535 megawatts of natural gas, 1,166 megawatts of solar and zero new megawatts of nuclear to the electrical grid. Competition is meeting our energy needs.

Even before Fukushima, the nuclear energy industry, having met its maker in the marketplace, wanted taxpayers to assume the risk the private sector declined to take on. For decades, the insurance industry has refused to insure a reactor unless taxpayers assumed all costs of an accident above $12.6 billion. By comparison, JPMorgan Chase estimated that the Japanese utility, TEPCO, might face costs of $23.6 billion just to compensate affected communities — and that doesn’t even count the costs of cleaning up the radioactive mess.

Wall Street has also made it clear it won’t finance new reactor construction unless taxpayers assume the risk of the project. In Georgia, this risk was recently deemed to be $8.3 billion for a two-reactor project alone. That’s like securing an advance bail-out.

Investors recognize that there are inherent financial and safety risks associated with nuclear power — risks that the Fukushima accident has put into sharp focus.

That is why it’s always best to prepare for the worst. Boosterism and complacency must never trump safety in the United States. Our nation is also susceptible to earthquakes, power outages and floods. In addition, documents captured from Al Qaida indicate that nuclear plants are at the top of terrorist target lists.

Unfortunately, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has failed to incorporate new estimates of seismic risk into its safety regulations. A senior NRC scientist reviewed plans for the new Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design and determined that it could “shatter like a glass cup” under significant stress, questioning the adequacy of the earthquake modeling performed.

The Fukushima meltdown happened because electricity to the cooling system was knocked out. It is clear that providing just seven days of diesel fuel and four to eight hours of backup battery capacity is not enough.

If nuclear power is to play a role in our energy future, there are four safety steps to ensure the U.S. fleet of nuclear reactors, and the families living in their shadows, are protected:

• First, establish a moratorium on new nuclear power plant designs, licenses or license extensions, until the lessons from Fukushima are incorporated into our regulatory framework.

• Second, ensure that the safety of our current fleet of reactors is upgraded. 

• Third, distribute potassium iodide to families living within a 20-mile radius of reactors, instead of just 10 miles. In Japan, the NRC recommended a 50-mile evacuation zone for U.S. citizens. Potassium iodide has been shown to eliminate thyroid cancers caused by radiation. In 2002 I passed a law to ensure potassium iodide was distributed to the 20-mile mark, and that law must be fully implemented.

• Fourth, re-assess the financial risks to taxpayers associated with new nuclear reactor construction in the wake of Fukushima. 

These steps will ensure that the lessons learned from the tragedy in the land of the rising sun help guide our nation to a safe energy future. 

Markey is ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee and a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.