Is the U.S. Ready for a Nuclear Emergency?

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On Friday, Japan faced another round of assessing the damage from a massive aftershock — the strongest in over 400 in the last month — that struck off the north coast late last night. At least three people were killed in the quake and more than 140 injured, and as of Friday evening, millions in the disaster-struck region were again without power. Fortunately, though workers had to temporarily evacuate the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in an ensuing tsunami warning, the jolt apparently did not do any further damage to the crippled plant. Nor did it compromise other nuclear power plants in the quake zone, though some lost power and had to use emergency generators to keep their cooling systems online.

Still, the turn of events has not exactly been confidence inspiring. In the last month, the constant drumbeat of bad news coming out of Fukushima has led officials from China to Canada to do some serious soul-searching into their own nuclear ambitions – and what they’re capable of handling should an emergency of Fukushimic proportions arise. (See TIME’s full coverage of the crisis in Japan.)

In the U.S., where nuclear energy expansion had been shaping up as a cornerstone in the Obama Administration’s march toward a greener future, Americans seem to be growing markedly more uncomfortable with the technology. An Associated Press-GfK poll released on Friday shows that 60% of Americans now oppose building new nuclear power plants — a leap up from 48% in 2009. And though most don’t think an emergency in the U.S. is likely, three-quarters of those surveyed were only “somewhat confident” or straight-up “not confident” that the U.S. could handle it if there was one. Nearly one in four Americans lives within a 50-mile radius of a nuclear plant. (The evacuation zone around Fukushima is currently 12 miles, though on Thursday the government said it was considering expanding that. For several weeks, U.S. officials have recommended a 50-mile exclusion zone.)

Worryingly, those randomly polled citizens are not the only ones to harbor doubts about the security of America’s 104 nuclear reactors.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has publicly said in the aftermath of Fukushima that all U.S. nuclear plants are operating safely and that it will re-examine both its own regulations and practices as well as the ability of U.S. reactors to withstand natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and power blackouts, among other things. The NRC says U.S. reactors are so safe partly due to (confidential) procedures and policies put in place after 9/11 to manage the possibility a plane crashing into a nuclear power plant, the consequences of which could presumably include a loss of external and on-site power ala Fukushima.

According to documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), there is disagreement within the NRC as to how well U.S. reactors are actually secured under these new policies. In 2006, the NRC started a program called the State of the Art Reactor Consequence Analyses (SOARCA), designed to “estimate the outcomes of postulated severe accident scenarios that might cause a nuclear power plant to release radioactive material into the environment.” The program analyzed two U.S. plants – Surry in Virginia and Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania. In one email exchange obtained in the FOIA, senior NRC analysts were not confident that the post 9/11 security measures had been  proven to be as effective as the SOARCA staff says they are. In another email dated Feb. 7, 2011, expected to be released by UCS today, SOARCA reportedly found that under one severe accident scenario at a U.S. plant, there would be as many as 120 fatalities from acute radiation syndrome. Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the UCS Global Security Program, said at a press conference yesterday that what kind of accident that would be, or at what kind of nuclear power plant, were not clear in the email UCS obtained. (See TIME’s list of the worst historical nuclear disasters.)

It’s too early to predict the overall impact that Fukushima will have on nuclear policy in the U.S. or anywhere else, but it’s sure to dampen some of the enthusiasm that has been building for the low-emissions energy in recent years. This time last year, there were applications for 20 new reactors under consideration by the Department of Energy; in 2007, there were none. In February 2010, the DOE guaranteed over $8 billion in loans for the construction of two new reactors in Georgia, the first new nuclear power plant to be built the U.S. since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, despite the fact that the government had yet to fashion a permanent storage plan for the nation’s spent fuel.

Long before Fukushima started to unravel, the chinks were there. It should not have taken the exposure of stored spent fuel rods in Japan for the U.S. to get serious about a long-term plan for its own spent fuel, now waiting for a permanent home in a combination of liquid and dry storage at over 80 locations in more than 30 states. In 2010, the NRC made 14 special inspections in response to incidents at U.S. nuclear power plants ranging from problems with safety equipment to security issues.

Perhaps the best thing that could come out of this grim month is not a movement for the abolition of all new nuclear power, but a slowing down of the impulse that nuclear power should fill the gap between the war-torn, planet-warming age of fossil fuels and the ascendance of a better kind of energy – one we don’t have to fear or fight over. In a word, perhaps just a little patience.