U.S. Nuclear Plants to Undergo Safety Reviews

March 21, 2011

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will conduct a “comprehensive review” of the safety of all U.S. nuclear plants following what U.S. officials are calling the dangerous and complicated situation at Japan’s damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors.

President Barack Obama took the rare step and called upon the independent commission to conduct the review.

“When we see a crisis like the one in Japan, we have a responsibility to learn from this event and to draw from those lessons to ensure the safety and security of our people,” Obama said.

Obama’s statement came as he tried to reassure a worried nation that “harmful levels” of radiation from the Japanese nuclear disaster are not expected to reach the U.S., even as other officials conceded it could take weeks to bring the crippled nuclear complex under control.

There are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, providing roughly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. “Nuclear energy is an important part of our own energy future,” Obama said.

A leading industry group agreed with the review.

“A review of our nuclear plants is an appropriate step after an event of this scale, and we expect that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will conduct its own assessment,” said Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “The industry’s highest priority is the safe operation of 104 reactors in 31 states and we will incorporate lessons learned from this accident…”

In the U.S., Customs and Border Protection said there had been reports of radiation being detected from some cargo arriving from Japan at several airports, including ones in Chicago, Dallas and Seattle.

Radiation had not been detected in passengers or luggage. And none of the reported incidents involved harmful amounts.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the agency was screening passengers and cargo for “even a blip of radiation.”

On Friday, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman reiterated that no U.S. land — the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska and the American territories — is in peril.

Obama said he knows that Americans are worried about potential risks from airborne radiation that could drift across the Pacific. “So I want to be very clear,” he said. “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.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the fact that Obama had taken the rare step of asking the NRC — an independent regulatory agency that is not under the president’s control — to undertake a review of U.S. reactor safety in light of the Japanese disaster “only adds to the urgency of that mission.”

Representatives of the nuclear energy industry said that operators of U.S. reactors already had begun taking steps to better prepare for an emergency in this country.

While it will take some time to understand the true dimensions of the nuclear disaster in Japan, “we will learn from them, we will get that operating experience, we will apply it and try to make our units even safer than they are today,” said Anthony Pietrangelo, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry lobbying group.

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