Physicist: US Behind in Improving Post-Fukushima Nuclear Safety Standards

Friday, October 25, 2019

Frank von Hippel

By Allison Pestotnik

Tokyo - (PanOrient News) Market forces have kept the U.S. nuclear power industry from adequately increasing safety measures after Fukushima, according to nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel in an article published in Physics Today.

Von Hippel asserts that nuclear power in the U.S. has struggled to compete with other energy sources like natural gas, wind and solar, and as a result the industry has decided not to invest as much as some other countries in safety precautions for nuclear reactors.

According to data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. nuclear plants will spend approximately $40 million each on post-Fukushima upgrades, compared to $210 million in France and $640 million in Japan.

A tsunami-induced 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan rocked the international nuclear industry. While a few countries like Germany went so far as to try and rid themselves of nuclear energy entirely, many countries increased safety measures and checks to varying degrees. But some say that the U.S., bending to pro-industry interests, is behind in making adequate regulatory changes.

Von Hippel says that an example of a safety improvement that U.S. regulators have neglected is the requirement of a heavy-duty filtration system to remove radioactivity from gases in the event of a reactor containment structure becoming over-pressurized. Although such systems have long been required in Europe, they weren’t required in Japan or the U.S. before Fukushima.

Because the Fukushima plant lacked such a system, unfiltered gases led to land contamination and ultimately the displacement of 100,000 people. Although Japan changed its regulation following the disaster, the U.S. decided against it.

Increasing safety measures in the nuclear industry is a complicated issue: on the one hand, not having adequate safety precautions can lead to a dangerous and costly disaster. On the other hand, increasing regulation decreases the competitiveness of nuclear energy, which can lead to reliance on globe-warming fossil fuels.

But erring too much on the side of optimism could be dangerous. From 2012 to 2016, von Hippel served as a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee studying what lessons the U.S. could learn from Fukushima, and said that during that time he found that questionable cost-benefit analyses were being used in the nuclear industry to justify not implementing more safety measures.

Examples included predicting a 0% chance of a successful terror attack on a reactor, in addition to unrealistically low estimations of the costs of a Fukushima-sized nuclear accident.

As global warming and the future of energy continue to gain public awareness, the debate surrounding the risks and benefits of nuclear power will likely be thrown more and more into the spotlight. How industry players and regulators respond could have significant implications for both their own future and the planet.

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