President Barack Obama said radiation leaking from a damaged nuclear plant in Japan poses no danger to the U.S. and defended nuclear power as an “important part” of the nation’s energy production.
“We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it’s the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific,” he said yesterday at the White House.
Obama said he ordered a “comprehensive review” of safety at U.S. nuclear facilities as more is learned about the situation in Japan. U.S. plants already have undergone “exhaustive study” and been “declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies,” he said.
Authorities in Japan are using helicopters and water cannons to cool reactors and spent-fuel ponds at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, which was damaged March 11 by a magnitude-9 earthquake and 7-meter tsunami.
The nuclear crisis has prompted governments from Germany to India to review nuclear-power policies. Germany plans to close its seven oldest nuclear plants for three months for inspections.
Obama administration officials including Energy Secretary Steven Chu have said the U.S. wasn’t backing away from plans to expand nuclear power.
Nuclear power is an “important part of our own energy future,” Obama said today.
Obama’s remarks reinforced statements earlier in the day by Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko that the government continually reviews safety and standards and will do so based on what is learned from the situation in Japan. There is no immediate need for special inspections of U.S. nuclear plants, he said.
“When we have good, credible information about what happened in Japan, we’ll take that information and we’ll work to see what changes we might need to make, if any, to our system,” Jaczko said.
The U.S. has 23 nuclear reactors with similar containment designs as the Japanese plant at the center of the crisis, Jaczko said. Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Tom Carper of Delaware yesterday sent a letter to Jaczko asking the NRC to conduct a “comprehensive investigation” of all nuclear power facilities in the U.S. to assess whether they can withstand a catastrophic disaster.
Jaczko said it is too early to assess U.S. nuclear plants because “the most relevant information” about the accident in Japan is lacking. U.S. reactors and containment facilities have been upgraded to “deal with these types of very severe scenarios,” he said.
Once all the data is in, “We intend to take a very thorough look at what happened and what changes we could make,” he said. It may take weeks for the situation to be resolved, he said.
All six of the reactors at the troubled Japanese plant are based on a General Electric Co. design, and three of them were built by the Fairfield, Connecticut-based company.
“We will fully support the review,” Andrew Williams, a GE spokesman, said.
The U.S. nuclear industry agreed this week to begin looking at procedures for handling natural disasters or equipment failures that plants weren’t designed to handle, Anthony R. Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry trade group Nuclear Energy Institute, said on a conference call.
Both the earthquake and the tsunami exceeded design specifications at Fukushima based on reports, he said. Procedures being looked at include deployment of diesel-fired portable water pumps for emergency reactor cooling, he said.
Michael Golay, a nuclear science and engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said U.S. nuclear regulators are taking the right approach because there is no “acute danger” from domestic reactors and it’s still unclear what went wrong in Japan.
“It’s going to take a while to figure out the real lessons from this,” he said. There is no safety benefit “in rushing to shut plants down,” he said in an interview.
Obama said the government is taking all steps necessary to assist its citizens in Japan and in the U.S., including the voluntary departures of dependents and family members of U.S. officials working in northeastern Japan.
In addition, customs agents are checking for radiation on flights arriving from Japan and regulators are considering whether to test Japanese food imports.
“In the coming days, we will continue to do everything we can to ensure the safety of American citizens and the security of our sources of energy,” Obama said. “And we will stand with the people of Japan as they contain this crisis, recover from this hardship and rebuild their great nation.”
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