Nuclear Expert Olander: Hit as Severe as Japan's Would Cripple US Plant, Too

Wednesday, 16 Mar 2011 06:28 PM

By Henry J. Reske and Ashley Martella

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A U.S. nuclear power plant would suffer the same crippling fate as the reactors in Japan if it were hit with a double disaster like the major earthquake and ensuing tsunami that rocked the Japanese plant, nuclear power expert Donald Olander tells Newsmax.TV.

Although older U.S. plants are not as well-designed as the new ones on drawing boards now under strict rules from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “they’ve had 40 years of safe operation except for Three Mile Island,” said Olander, a professor in the University of California, Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.

“So, I think from that point of view they can withstand a certain amount of accident conditions,” he said. “But, of course what’s off Japan is just totally without precedent. So, I think if any of our reactors were in the situation of the Japanese ones, they would have the same problems.”

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The earthquake and tsunami that struck the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant northeast of Tokyo wiped out backup power for the reactors’ cooling system that keeps the nuclear fuel from overheating. Despite efforts to cool the fuel manually by pumping in sea water, radiation levels in and around the plant have spiked, hampering repair efforts aimed at averting a core meltdown.

Olander echoed other nuclear experts who rank the Japanese nuclear disaster as somewhere between Chernobyl in what then was the Soviet Union in 1986 and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

The fire and explosions at Chernobyl, Ukraine, produced a radioactive cloud that drifted across much of the old Soviet Union and Europe. The accident at Three Mile Island plant led to a partial meltdown, but an explosion was averted and only a small amount of radiation was released.

“Compared to Chernobyl, there’s no massive release of radioactive materials,” Olander said. “Compared to Three Mile Island, there is release which drives up the count rate, the measure of radioactivity, outside of the reactors and downwind a little bit but so far no release that’s going to harm human beings.

“The 50 people that are working there are getting a lot of radiation, but that’s coming directly from the exposed fuel. They don’t have any protection. They’re not far enough away.”

At this point, it appears unlikely that radiation from the Japanese power plants would reach the United States, Olander said. Should people be exposed to radiation, potassium iodide pills, which have been flying off the shelves in some parts of the West Coast, are an effective counter.

“What the potassium iodide does is to flood the thyroid with normal iodine so that any pickup of radioactive iodine which might come from breathing in a decaying fission product cloud is prevented,” Olander said. “And if there is radioactive iodine in the thyroid the iodine in the potassium iodide can exchange with it and so remove the radioactive iodine.”

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