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Post Partisan
Posted at 09:16 PM ET, 03/16/2011

If a nuclear disaster can happen in Japan...


Arguing that nuclear power is inherently too risky, Anne Applebaum asks, "If the Japanese can't build a safe reactor, who can?" But much of what we have heard out of Japan since her column ran suggests that the country isn’t remarkable for its attention to nuclear safety, as she and Gene Robinson described it to be.

The latest evidence came Wednesday, when Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko testified before the House Energy Committee that, if this accident were taking place on American soil, his agency would evacuate residents within 50 miles of the plant, more than twice the distance Japanese authorities have used to define their evacuation zone.

Why, anyway, were critical backup systems exposed to the effects of tsunamis in a country that coined the term for those relentless surges of water? A country that sits astride the sort of massive, deep fault that produces earthquakes far larger than those in California? This was not some unknown danger.

It became clear in Jaczko's questioning Wednesday that backup diesel generators at American plants facing risk of storm surge or hurricanes are generally much better protected than those at Fukushima Daiichi. In fact, American regulators, stricter since Three Mile Island, require that nuclear plant operators build safeguards against any natural disaster in the historical record of the sites on which they build, and that they include a margin for error and the unexpected.

And Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the nuclear complex and the largest power company in Japan, has hardly been the most responsible of utilities. In 2002, its senior executives resigned after admitting to 200 instances of falsifying safety reports and covering up accidents. More wrongdoing was discovered five years later. Now, Japan's prime minister and ordinary citizens are angry at the company for revealing too little information about the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi.  

The Japanese, to be sure, are not reckless, as the Soviets were during Chernobyl. Nuclear power will always pose its dangers, though the odds of disaster are still exceptionally small. And no regulator or utility is perfect, in Japan or in America. But folks who live next to nuclear power plants don’t necessarily face the same level of risk those around Fukushima Daiichi did.

By  |  09:16 PM ET, 03/16/2011

 
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