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US government advises wider evacuation radius around crippled nuclear plant

chu-hearing4-260.JPGThe US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has advised the evacuation of US citizens within 50 miles (about 80 kilometers) of the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant, a distance four times that recommended by the Japanese government, according to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko. The evacuation recommendation, said Jaczko today in front of a congressional panel, comes in light of high radiation levels measured outside of the unit 4 reactor building and the possibility of further radiation emission from the plant.

“Based on the available information that we have, for a comparable situation in the United States, we would recommend an evacuation to a much larger radius than has currently been provided in Japan,” said Jaczko. “As a result of this recommendation, the Ambassador in Japan has issued a statement to American citizens that we believe it is appropriate to evacuate to a much larger distance.”

According to US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (pictured), who also appeared before the panel, the US government is in constant contact with officials in Japan, though the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station remains uncertain. He said a team of 39 US experts has been deployed along with monitoring equipment to help Japanese officials track changing radiation levels.

Meanwhile in Japan, workers entered a seventh day of trying to control four nuclear reactors crippled by last Friday’s tsunami. Three reactors in operation at the time of the quake went into automatic shutdown but have since experienced core damage from inadequate cooling due to loss of power and malfunction of the onsite diesel generators. Jaczko said it is believed that a fourth unit that was storing spent fuel has experienced a hydrogen explosion, has no water left in the spent fuel pool and is emitting high levels of radiation.


Today’s joint meeting of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power and the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy was originally meant for testimony from Jaczko and Chu about the FY2012 Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission budgets. But because of the escalating situation in Japan, the agenda was changed to also address concerns related to Japan and to the vulnerability of reactors in the US to man made and natural disasters.

Both Chu and Jaczko said that a thorough review of the events surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi plant would be conducted and that any lessons learned would be applied to US nuclear power plants if needed. But neither offered any specific safety measures that would immediately be taken in the US and neither would speculate about the possible consequences of the accident in Japan.

According to Jaczko, all US nuclear power plants are built to withstand events that exceed historical worst case scenarios for their particular region – tornados for the Midwest, or earthquakes for California, for instance. Current plants are also required to maintain strict levels of security to guard against terrorist attacks and withstand large fires or explosions that could result from a possible strike. In the future, any new plants built must also be able to withstand aircraft impact, said Jaczko.

Chu said that the US remained committed to nuclear power as part of a diverse energy portfolio.

Committee members’ budget questions reflected the ongoing debate within the US government over energy policy, with Republican members suggesting acceleration of domestic fossil fuel production (natural gas, offshore oil) and Democrats pushing for more investments in alternative energies and new technologies.

An archived webcast of the hearing can be found here.

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