In the days that followed the 2011 Great Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami, news outlets around the globe followed the unfolding catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant with what seemed like minute-by-minute coverage. The world witnessed the Japanese rescue workers struggling to keep the plant’s nuclear cores from overheating and melting. We saw graphic images of hydrogen explosions destroy multiple reactor buildings, televised in real-time. Reports came in of large evacuations that seemed to become more urgent and wide-reaching with each passing day. And it didn’t take too long before other countries and their citizens began to question the safety of their own nuclear reactors. Being a nuclear engineering graduate student at the time, I received my fair share of phone calls from family members and friends, all of them wanting to know: What is really going on and could this happen here?
Closing in on the one-year anniversary of the largest nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, those of us in the United States are still left wondering: Has anything changed? What have we learned from the Japanese accident, and is the U.S. nuclear industry safer than it was a year ago? Should Americans be confident in our nuclear regulators?
In the months that followed the Fukushima disaster, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the nuclear industry assured us that the accidents in Japan and the ever-compounding complications seen there were extremely unlikely to occur in the United States. Nonetheless, the NRC tasked a team of its own experts to conduct a study and to report back with an assessment of the “domestic nuclear fleet,” highlighting any changes in reactor safety-related systems, emergency equipment, and procedures that would be prudent to implement in light of the events and lessons learned at Fukushima. On July 12, 2011, the agency’s Near-Term Task Force released its findings and the Chairman of the NRC was hopeful that a decision could be made on implementing the report’s recommendations within 90 days. As news came that there might be an effort to stall this safety overhaul, NRDC’s Nuclear Program submitted more than a dozen rulemaking and order petitions related to the report’s recommendations to spur the Commission into action. A little more than a month later, NRC began conducting public meetings to solicit comment from industry and external stakeholders, NRDC among them, on the conclusions reached in the report and what the next steps should be for the Commission.