Juliette Kayyem

Can the US handle a nuclear disaster?

The Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan has seen explosions at two reactors since the earthquake struck. The Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan has seen explosions at two reactors since the earthquake struck. (Reuters)
By Juliette Kayyem
March 15, 2011

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FIRST THE EARTHQUAKE, then the tsunami, and now the radiation. Given the devastation and horror in Japan, it does not take much of an imagination to wonder whether locusts are next.

Unit No. 3 at Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continues to explode and release radiation, causing health and safety concerns in the immediate area and unleashing a debate about nuclear energy and safety around the world. The Obama administration, which had based its energy and climate policy on clean coal development, expanded offshore oil drilling, and nuclear power, has now seen these basic pillars all questioned by disaster in the form of the Upper Big Branch coal explosion in West Virginia, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and now the earthquake in Japan.

I have worked in homeland security for several years, and spent most of last summer responding to the BP oil spill. I have seen how disaster can force us to ask the right questions (Wasn’t the blow-out preventer 100 percent guaranteed to stop any leaking from an accident?) and the unanswerable ones (Isn’t this solid proof that all offshore drilling is too dangerous?). With events in Japan, the natural tendency will be to assume that nuclear power is unsafe at any speed, and that Obama’s hopes to expand nuclear energy technology and build 20 new nuclear plants are all but doomed.

The important policy debate, however, risks merging two separate issues. First, can US nuclear power plants handle a major natural disaster? That question, pushed by Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts, may be a terrifying no. In the past, hurricanes and tornadoes have damaged nuclear plants in Ohio, Florida, and Louisiana. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that every plant be built to survive an earthquake larger than the strongest ever recorded in the area. But that standard means that we’ve failed to anticipate the Big One. Nuclear construction and engineering must study and adapt to what is happening at Daiichi in order to ensure that the buildings and construction serve as the first line of defense against any leakage.

The second issue is just as essential: What would we do if radiation started to leak? “Run fast’’ is not the only answer. In fact, the American public’s lack of basic knowledge about radiation and preparedness must be one of the scariest consequences of a nation still struggling about how to encourage preparedness on the part of ordinary citizens without terrifying them. The legacy of former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s “duct tape and plastic sheeting’’ has made us, at best, skeptical and, at worst, smug about taking responsibility for our own safety.

Residents near the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts, and those within the 10-mile radiation zone of Vermont Yankee and Seabrook, N.H., are used to preparing themselves and seeking assistance from the government with training and drills, access to medication, and evacuation plans. They may not be completely confident in the government’s planning, but they aren’t completely dependent on it, either.

Last summer, the Obama administration began the difficult challenge of making plans to educate citizens about radiation in the event of a nuclear attack, detonation, or release. The advice — stay put, a variation of my elementary school days “duck and cover’’ technique — was based on extensive study of radiation fallout; if you are indoors, you would receive a 10th the radiation you’d receive outdoors, fleeing.

The White House planning document for a nuclear event essentially admits that the public would be foolish to rely too heavily on the government. Sheltering in place (for any contingency) requires a few minutes to prepare your home with basic essentials, including water and food, and to ensure that your loved ones know where to go in the event that all communications are disrupted. It is that simple; no drama, no duct tape.

I couldn’t help noting the irony that on the day of Representative Peter King’s controversial hearings on the fear of Islamic radicalism in our midst, Mother Nature reminded us that we live among threats every day. We don’t have to create them. If there is any good news about the events in Japan, it is that the Japanese government’s preparedness philosophy — not based on terrorism, but on Mother Nature — and the public’s personal acceptance of responsibility for being prepared helped save many lives.

There is no doubt that nuclear safety will be the subject of a heated debate in the months to come. And that debate may serve as an important opportunity to challenge not only the nuclear industry’s assumptions about plant safety, but also our own assumptions about empowering ourselves to protect our well-being.

Juliette Kayyem, a guest columnist, is former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.