By Paul C. Barton
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - More than 14 months after a massive earthquake ripped apart the Fukushima nuclear power complex in Japan, fears persist about how a follow-up natural disaster at the still-fragile site could impact the West Coast of the United States.
And there are also concerns about how U.S. nuclear plants would deal with a natural disaster of similar magnitude.
The alarms come from two of the Senate's most prominent Democrats -- Barbara Boxer of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon -- as well as new studies documenting how radioactivity migrated across the Pacific from the March 11, 2011 disaster to lodge in marine and plant life.
Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, still shakes his head in disbelief with what he saw during an April visit to the Fukushima site.
Spent fuel rods, containing enough radioactivity to poison millions, remain in pools of water covered only with plastic in the badly damaged Unit No. 4. If the building ever collapses, experts have warned, the rods could become exposed and the radiation leakage would be unprecedented.
Robert Alvarez, a former senior Energy Department official in the Clinton administration, has issued a similar warning, saying if an accident causes the Unit 4's pool of spent fuel rods to drain, it could release of 10 times as much radioactivity as Chernobyl, the Russian nuclear plant disaster of 1986.
What mortifies Wyden is that, plus a possible follow-up earthquake or other disaster befalling the plant before the fuel rods can be made more secure. The Japanese utility, Tokyo Electric Power Co., is proposing to take 10 years to take care of the fuel rods.
"I think that's too long," the senator said when interviewed in his Capitol Hill office. "If that (the plant) ruptures, it's bad news."
The amounts of radioactivity that could drift to the West Coast, he said, would be far more than trace amounts.
In a recent letter to Ichiro Fujisaki, Japanese ambassador to the United States, Wyden said the damage to the six nuclear units at the site from the earthquake, tsunami and resulting hydrogen explosion "was far beyond what I expected" and that assisting Japan with the cleanup effort should be an international priority.
Some prominent Japanese also contend the fuel-rod issue, the most dangerous part of the clean up, is taking too long.
Although some have accused him of exaggeration, Mitsuhei Murata, a former Japanese ambassador to Europe and Africa, recently wrote to the United Nations and his own government that "the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on (the) No. 4 reactor."
Meanwhile, two new studies involving California scientists have confirmed that radioactive elements released by Fukushima found their way to the West Coast marine life.
One of the studies, done by researchers at California State University-Long Beach, found them in kelp; a second, released by the National Academy of Sciences and involving researchers at Stanford, found them in bluefin tuna.
In both cases, the amounts found were deemed too small to present any threat to human health, but they still raised significant questions about the potential for "bioaccumulation" of radiation in the ocean food chain.
Despite its severity, the Fukushima disaster was not as severe as scenarios that U.S. government scientists have used to assess when it would be necessary to declare fishing areas off limits or interdict food supplies, said Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.
Even 10 times the March 2011 radiation release, Lyman said, would only endanger Japan -- and possibly Alaska and U.S. territories.
For now, he said, scare stories alleging cover-ups of Fukushima's effect on the United States should be disregarded.
About "95 percent of that is factually inaccurate and wrong," Lyman said On a related matter, Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been raising questions since last year about how well U.S. nuclear plants would handle a major earthquake or other disaster.
And this week, the Government Accountability Office reported to her that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not requiring U.S. utilities to use the most up-to-date methods of risk assessment in evaluating the vulnerability of their own nuclear plants to major natural disasters.
"There is simply no excuse for the NRC's failure to require the most up to date methods to assess the threat posed by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, to our nuclear power plants," Boxer said in a statement.
She added that "action is needed now to ensure that standards are in place that best protect the health and safety of the American public."
The California senator pointed out there are eight nuclear reactors along the "seismically active West Coast alone," not to mention ones located near fault lines in the Midwest and the East.
In response to the GAO study, NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said U.S. nuclear plants "are responding" to a March directive that they complete a new analysis of earthquake and flooding hazards "using today's update methods and guidance."
He added the NRC is also directing them to have staff "knowledgeable and experienced in earthquake and flood protection" physically examine the plants.
Said Brenner, "The NRC continues to work on implementation of a Fukushima lessons-learned recommendation to require regular re-analysis of flooding and earthquake hazards."
Gannett Washington Bureau