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Japan nuclear crisis: Has the US industry learned something?

Administration officials, in the first formal accounting to Congress on the Japan nuclear crisis, assured senators that US reactors are safe. But industry critics said much needs to be improved.

By Staff writer / March 29, 2011

An aerial view of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is seen from 18 miles away in Fukushima Prefecture on March 29, 2011. From right are the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 reactors.

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With Japan's damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant spreading trace amounts of radioactivity around the globe, senators on Capitol Hill quizzed nuclear experts Tuesday to find out what lessons from the Japanese nuclear crisis might help safeguard the US reactor fleet.

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While nuclear-industry proponents sought to assure the senators that the US reactors are safe, industry critics emphasized that improvements are needed in the areas of spent-fuel storage, emergency backup power, and evacuation procedures.

The testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was the Obama administration's first formal accounting to Congress of its response to the Japanese nuclear crisis.

Officials from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) detailed how their agencies had supplied Japan with robots to probe radioactive areas of the Fukushima plant, technical advice from a team of about 40 experts, and 17,000 pounds of equipment.

How dangerous is nuclear power? Three lessons from Japan.

But what the senators really wanted to know was whether the DOE and NRC had drawn any early conclusions and were taking steps to prevent such a crisis from occurring in the United States. Repeatedly, they were told that those answers would be forthcoming only after the NRC concluded a 90-day review of US reactors – but that US reactors, which had benefitted from continuous upgrades, were safe.

“Are you fully confident that once we've reviewed all of that ... you will be in a position to evaluate whether – if the exact same set of environmental conditions that occurred there were presented here in US – whether or not we would be able to withstand it without a meltdown or release that occurred there?” asked Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah.

“In general, yes sir,” responded Peter Lyons, the DOE’s acting assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy, who proceeded to detail the kinds of assessments nuclear plants undergo to be prepared for a natural disaster.

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