WASHINGTON (AP) — Energy Secretary Steven Chu suggested Sunday that Japan’s nuclear crisis might make it less likely that new nuclear reactors are built near large American cities, just one of many safety changes that could be forthcoming as U.S. officials review reactor safety.
"Certainly where you site reactors and where we site reactors going forward will be different than where we might have sited them in the past,” Chu said in response to questions about the Indian Point nuclear plant near New York City. "Any time there is a serious accident, we have to learn from those accidents and go forward.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said his agency will again review how U.S. nuclear plants store spent-fuel from nuclear reactors. The state of the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant has been a major concern as Japanese officials try to stem the release of radiation and bring the reactors under control.
"Five days ago everybody was worried about earthquakes and tsunamis and the reactors cooling,” NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told The Associated Press. "Today everybody is worried about the spent fuel pools. Until this is resolved we are not going to ultimately know what the most important factors are in terms of what needs to be addressed.”
Japanese officials reported progress Sunday in their battle to gain control over the leaking, tsunami-stricken nuclear complex, even as the discovery of more radiation-tainted vegetables and tap water added to fears about contaminated food and drink.
The Food and Drug Administration said Sunday that the United States is not importing any foods from the affected area of Japan, and the agency is working with Customs and Border Patrol to screen other Japanese food imports to make sure they are not tainted. They are also checking food that may have passed through Japan.
The FDA said it expects no risk to the U.S. food supply from radiation. Japanese foods make up less than 4 percent of all U.S. imports. The most common imports are seafood, snack foods and processed fruits and vegetables.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials took steps to make sure that nuclear reactors could withstand an attack as well as earthquakes and other natural disasters. In the days after the Japan earthquake and tsunami, President Barack Obama asked for another safety review.
In an appearance Sunday on C-SPAN’s "Newsmakers," Jaczko emphasized that the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States are required to have redundant systems — "a backup to the backup" — to ensure that a loss of power will not cripple their ability to cool the spent fuel pools. In Japan, the backup generators were inoperable.
"We think we have a program in place that would deal with the kinds of situations that we are seeing in Japan, but I want to stress that what they are dealing with in Japan is a very, very difficult situation and that there will be plenty of opportunity when this crisis is resolved to really figure out what happened and how we can all learn from it," he said.
Jaczko set off worldwide alarm last week after saying that all the water was gone from one of the spent fuel pools at Japan’s most troubled nuclear plant, raising the possibility of widespread nuclear fallout. Japanese officials denied the pool was dry.
Jaczko said Sunday he was comfortable that his earlier remarks were accurate, but he added that Japanese officials have spent the past several days trying to put water into the spent fuel pools, among other steps they are taking to stem the nuclear disaster. "So we’re dealing with a very different situation now,” he said.
Jaczko said it was possible there is a leak in the pool, but he did not elaborate.
Chu was more optimistic.
"I think with each passing hour, each passing day, things are more under control. And so, step by step, they are making very good progress,” Chu said.
The Japanese are using fire trucks to spray the spent fuel pools and are beginning to restore power there. Still, Chu and other officials acknowledged that serious problems remained at the stricken nuclear complex. Pressure unexpectedly rose in a third unit’s reactor, meaning plant operators may need to deliberately release radioactive steam. That has only added to public anxiety over radiation that began leaking from the plant after a monstrous earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan on March 11 and left the plant unstable.
In the United States, lessons learned from the safety studies could affect the NRC’s review of pending applications for new nuclear plants, including the types of reactor designs being proposed, Jaczko said.
"We certainly want to get good information and if that good information tells us that we need to make changes to our licensing process, then we will do that," he said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is seeking a review of the Indian Point power plant, about 40 miles north of New York City. More than 21 million people live within 50 miles of the plant.
Chu, who spoke on “Fox News Sunday” and CNN’s "State of the Union," said officials believe Indian Point is safe but that they will review whether it should continue operating in the wake of the Japanese disaster.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the Japanese crisis should not cause the United States to turn away from nuclear power.
“I think there ought to be a period here where all of our nuclear plants are tested very, very carefully to make sure that they are safe and to make sure that this cannot happen here. But I don’t think that we can say that we’re not going to continue to use nuclear power,” Levin said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Unlike coal or other fossil fuels, nuclear power does not contribute to global warming, Levin said.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the crisis called into question the viability of nuclear power in the United States.
"We should understand that it’s very difficult for us to guarantee that a catastrophic meltdown cannot happen in our country,” Markey said on CBS’s “Face the Nation."