Secretary Chu says Americans 'in no danger' from Japanese nuclear reactors

The nuclear crisis in Japan grew more troubling Sunday as efforts to control the Fukushimi Daiichi nuclear power facility continued to hit unexpected roadblocks. But Energy Secretary Steven Chu says Americans "are in no danger" from radiation.

By , Staff writer

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    A worker stocks tomatoes from Tochigi Prefecture at a market Sunday, March 20, in Tokyo. Japan announced the first signs that contamination from its tsunami-crippled nuclear complex have seeped into the food chain.
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The nuclear crisis in Japan grew more troubling Sunday as efforts to control the Fukushimi Daiichi nuclear power facility continue to hit unexpected roadblocks nine days after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out its power and caused its six reactors to overheat and leak, threatening the region with radiation exposure.

Electrical power remains out at the plant although officials said they hoped to have parts of the facility back online Sunday. Bringing electricity back will return power to the reactor buildings, but officials say the hydrogen explosion that occurred after the earthquake damaged cooling pumps in three of the six reactors beyond repair.

On television talk shows Sunday, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave his assessment of the current situation.

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"I think there is suspicion of damaged fuel rods in the reactors themselves," Sec. Chu said on CNN’s State of the Union. "But the issue here now is whether the containment vessels are intact. And the main containment vessels in two of them we believe are intact. We don't know the status of the third one."

Chu also sought to assure Americans concerned about radioactive material drifting across the Pacific Ocean to the United States.

"The people in the United States, US territories, are in no danger," Chu said on Fox News Sunday. "It's unlikely they will be exposed to danger."

By midnight Saturday, workers had rigged an unmanned device that sprays seawater into one of the six reactors, which cooled it down, an effort meant to prevent a meltdown that could release a large amount of radiation into the surrounding area. The effort is considered a test that could be used on subsequent reactors.

While temperatures at two of the reactors dropped Sunday, an unexpected rise in pressure inside a third reactor caused officials to scramble for a solution, an indication that the crisis is likely to continue through this week.

“Even if certain things go smoothly there would be twists and turns," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told the Associated Press Sunday. “At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough.”

One sign of good news is the weather forecast: Rain is expected early this week, which officials say could localize the radiation contamination close to the plant and prevent it from spreading.

In the US, the situation is forcing a review of all US nuclear power plants to ensure they are compliant with safety standards and would remain stable in the case of an earthquake or other environmental disaster.

On Thursday, President Obama directed the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to conduct a comprehensive review of the 104 nuclear power plants currently in operation in the US.

Obama’s directive is long overdue, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an organization based in Cambridge, Mass. A UCS report says the NRC has a history of lax oversight of security and safety problems at the nation’s nuclear power facilities.

According to the report, there were 14 instances in 2010 at US plants involving problems related to broken infrastructure, malfunctioning equipment, and untrained workers. The report characterized the problems as “near misses” and said they required special visits by federal inspectors.

The organization says the NRC needs to go beyond requiring plant owners to fix violations. In addition, according to the UCS, the NRC should require an investigation into why the violation occurred and what measures were put in place to ensure it would not happen in the future. The NRC audits only 5 percent of activities at plants each year, according to the UCS.

David Lochbaum, director of the UCS’s Nuclear Safety Program told reporters Saturday than Japan has “much stricter regulations” than the US and that NRC’s claim that this country’s infrastructure remains safe “can’t be backed up by the facts.”

The three plants the organization lists as “ineffective” are Peach Bottom in Delta, Pa.; the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, NY; and Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vt. The first is owned by owned by Exelon and the Public Service Enterprise Group while Entergy owns the last two.

In a letter to the NRC last week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said existing regulations do not address earthquake safety at Indian Point. The plant’s license is up for review in 2013. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested that it be permanently closed.

At a news conference Friday, Mr. Schneiderman said the NRC “refuses to fully and openly assess these specific risks to Indian Point as part of its relicensing process…. Before any conversation about relicensing is concluded, the [NRC] must answer basic health and safety questions.”

Secretary Chu was reluctant to say whether or not Indian Point should be shut down. He said that the NRC will soon study the reactor as part of Obama’s directed review.

“The Indian Point reactor is not in the situation like in Japan, but … we will be looking at whether those evacuation plans are adequate,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “But again, I don't want to jump to some judgment about what we should do going forward."

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