One year after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the nuclear industry is still grappling with how to handle the risks that come with extreme natural disasters.

What if something similar happened in the United States? According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, there were five nuclear shutdowns in the U.S. last year, all due to natural disasters including two tornadoes, an earthquake, a hurricane and flooding. The group has released a map showing what it says could happen if a disaster like Fukushima occurred at one of the country’s 104 reactors.

The group attempted to model the airborne plumes of radiation that might occur if one of those reactors lost both primary and backup power for even a few hours. The

NRDC’s map, however, is based on the actual weather patterns in the U.S. on March 11 and 12, 2011—not taking into account the high winds that might take place during a severe weather event.

The Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns and radiation leakage came on the heels of the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the resulting tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011.

(See pictures of the cleanup after Fukushima)

Although the NRDC’s model is not based on severe weather, which would change its forecast significantly, Dr. Gerhard Wotawa, a technical expert for the Austrian National Data Center for Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Verification in Vienna, said it could still be useful information.

With Fukushima, nuclear experts put out forecasts for the radiation plume as the international community began to worry about how it might spread. Wotawa said those models “worked fairly well.”

“Prediction is based on the winds forecast for the next few days,” Wotawa said. The models use data from satellites and ships, and the position of the particles. All of the data go into a powerful computer model. “We end up with a timed series of calculations.”

“This is the measurement system that was not available 10 or 15 years ago,” Wotawa said. “It was only a factor of three to four off, which is good based on only a few measurement points.”

Of course, every forecast has its challenges.

“The radiation plume going to Europe after all was more dense than the model thought,” Wotawa said. “More radioactivity came over to Europe than expected before. A few more particles were released into the atmosphere. Some of these are also gases, and gases survive much longer.”

Wotawa said it was actually easier to predict where the plume might go across the Pacific Ocean than to create a local model. “In Japan itself, for example, you have different topography,” he said. “It is more difficult to predict.”

Another challenge for this incident in particular was getting all of the information in a timely manner, due to the Japanese government’s policies.

“It was pretty much live televised, but then it took weeks before it got known publicly how bad it was,” Wotawa said of the Fukushima disaster. “This was the first nuclear accident in the modern age of media. It’s not possible anymore to say that nothing happened.”

While the Japanese government and the energy company that owns the plant took criticism at the time of the event, the NRDC is criticizing the U.S. government now for failing to implement the safety lessons that were learned from Fukushima.

“These important safety upgrades are still years away from being implemented, if ever,” the NRDC said of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Last month, the NRC approved the first new license for a nuclear reactor in 34 years for a plant in Georgia despite the objections of the commission’s own chairman, Gregory Jaczko. Jaczko said he voted against the approval because he wanted Southern Company to commit to changes based on the Fukushima findings.

(Related: Would a New Nuclear Plant Fare Better Than Fukushima?)

The NRDC also said that many reactors across the U.S. are operating at higher power levels than they were initially authorized to use, increasing the radiation hazard in the case of a nuclear accident.

The effort to keep U.S. reactors safe will become even more key in the next few years, as construction moves ahead for the new reactors in Georgia, which are expected to come online by 2016 or 2017.

Meanwhile, the U.S. nuclear industry has stressed that it is moving forward before required by the federal regulators to take steps to back up the safety measures at all plants in the wake of the Fukushima accident. Its new safety strategy, called FLEX, seeks to provide an additional layer of backup power at all 104 reactors by stationing emergency generators, battery packs, pumps, air compressors and battery chargers in multiple locations nearby.  More than 300 pieces of safety equipment already have been installed or ordered, and all operators have committed to station the additional backup by the end of March, says the industry group, the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Tony Pietrangelo, NEI senior vice president, said there was debate soon after Fukushima on whether the industry should have enough power on hand for a four-hour, six-hour, eight-hour loss or more. But the industry decided a more preemptive approach was needed.

“Our goal is to have sufficient equipment so that there is no period of time during which we will experience loss of power,” he said.



  1. king neece
    April 7, 2012, 10:56 am

    Our University of Alabama patented personal solar desalination product (U.S. Made) uses no electricity, can be taken anywhere and extracts pure water from any contaminated water source. It removes radiation, fluoride, salt, pesticides, bacteria, dirt and other contaminants from any water source.

  2. HG
    March 16, 2012, 5:26 pm

    If nuclear plant owners were not shielded from full liability for the risks created by the plants they own, no new plants would be built and the existing plants would be quickly shut down.
    That should tell us that nuclear power simply does not make economic sense.

  3. bb
    North Jersey
    March 14, 2012, 4:49 pm

    Seriously? I think you should ask the Japanese whether Fukushima was a non-disaster. Unfortunately the deaths will come later as people’s immune systems collapse and cancer’s timeline begins to manifest. I imagine you also think that Chernobyl is a non-disaster as well… with it’s 30 km radius exclusion zone, 18 Billion Rubles, involved 500,000 workers in total with estimates of 25,000 premature Russian/Ukrainian cancer deaths and up to 985,000 premature cancer deaths world wide… We are only just not beginning to understand what the cost of Fukushima will be… Big Corporations, Big Government.. the real issue is transparency and accountability and that applies to both corporations and government…. so it’s not just big Government. I wonder how you would feel if you were in the fallout zone of a nuclear reactor accident? Would you stay with your family and claim it was a non-accident just because no one died in the first 6 months???

  4. JR
    UpState, NY
    March 14, 2012, 8:13 am

    I believe I speak for many people who will probably never have the sand to say it, when I say; Nuclear Radiation will never scare me more than Government Stupidity in believing that no matter what they think up and pass as Common Sense Law is good for everybody. Government is the manure of “Stupid”. And all this Green this and Green that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Just One Volcanic Eruption releases more Toxins/Poisons & Carbons into the air than man has since we’ve been walking the earth. Of course nobody ever explains that to you in college. If we want to save the planet, stop the Stupid from being released by government, here or around the world. Big Government is the only problem with the entire planet. Think about it; Whenever government has anything to do with it, they screw it up and We the People end up paying for it. Sometimes the most simple explanation is the truth that no one cares to hear. Sorry. Have a nice day.

  5. James Greenidge
    Queens NY
    March 13, 2012, 6:43 am

    Ironic that despite the non-disaster at Fukushima (zero mortality and zero off-site damage), China is dumping unreliable and lame wind and solar power to plow on ahead to be a leader in nuclear energy and reactors — a field the U.S. pioneered and conceded to green fear-mongers who’d rather have us daily die of air pollution and toxins!