The accident at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is no longer daily, front-page news, but residents of Japan continue to suffer the consequences.
Consider these recent developments:
In a small study, urine samples from 10 children living in Fukushima city showed traces of two radioactive isotopes released during the March explosions. (The Wall Street Journal, July 1)
Shares of TEPCO, the Japanese power company that owns the Fukushima nuclear plant, have fallen by 90 percent, and the company faces claims for compensation that could exceed its assets. (The Economist, June 30)
Some 80,000 people who lived in the evacuation zone have been forced from their homes by the nuclear crisis. (Associated Press, June 28)
Authorities in Date, located 35 miles from the plant, have banned schoolchildren from playing outdoors. (Christian Science Monitor, June 27.)
Big factories, office buildings, universities and department stores in the Tokyo area have been ordered to reduce electricity use by 15 percent to compensate for loss of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. (Associated Press, June 30.)
We recap these stories, not to trigger alarm or to in any way imply that something similar is bound to happen in every community with a nuclear plant. Rather we do so as a reminder of the huge toll that a nuclear accident takes — on health, the economy, the environment, on the mental well-being of children growing up in the disaster zone.
Given the devastating consequences, we believe it is absolutely incumbent on the nuclear industry to take every possible step to ensure safety and on strong, independent regulatory agencies to make sure that they do.
A recent series of articles on the nuclear industry by the Associated Press, published in The Tribune, make it clear that more work must be done to further ensure the safety of the nation’s 104 nuclear operating units.We want to stress that the AP series focused on all of the nation’s nuclear plants and uncovered a range of problems. Certainly, not all of those issues are necessarily present at any single nuclear plant, including Diablo Canyon. For example, radioactive tritium leaks that have plagued three-quarters of nuclear plants — reaching drinking wells in a few cases — have not been an issue at Diablo Canyon.
But in addition to exposing physical flaws at some of the nation’s aging plants — issues such as failed cables, corroded pipes and brittle containment vessels — the series uncovered a troubling willingness on the part of government regulators to relax safety standards to accommodate the nuclear industry:
“Time after time, officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews,” the report said.
It went on to give this example: “When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit.”
Perhaps some standards were unreasonably high to begin with and proved impossible to meet.
To the layperson, however, this sounds suspiciously like lowering the curve on an exam to avoid flunking too many students.
It raises a red flag, and we believe it merits further investigation.
Some U.S. senators, including California’s Barbara Boxer, are calling for the Government Accountability Office — Congress’ investigative arm — to examine the issues raised in the AP series.
We believe such an investigation is appropriate, and we strongly support Sen. Boxer and others who are calling for an in-depth examination.
Again, we need only look at the grim situation in Japan — a crisis still far from over — to get a sense of the real-life consequences of a nuclear accident.
Far from being sensational or alarmist, it’s common sense to learn from the experience in Japan — to take a step back and ensure not only that the plants operating in the United States are safe today, but to also examine whether regulatory standards and practices are adequate to guarantee ongoing safety as the plants age.