NRC head downplays risks at nuke plants

The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission downplayed the risk to public safety posed by wildfires and floodwater that are threatening nuclear facilities in New Mexico and Nebraska.

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico was shut down and evacuated due to an encroaching wildfire.

Los Alamos lab still under threat from blaze

In eastern Nebraska, the Fort Calhoun power plant is surrounded by the swollen Missouri River. Omaha Public Power, which owns and operates that facility, insists that all nuclear material remains high and dry, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.

On Monday the nation's nuclear regulatory chief went to Nebraska to see for himself: "The risk is really very low at this point that anything could go wrong," said NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Appearing on CBS' "The Early Show" this morning, Jaczko said the nuclear facilities in Nebraska threatened by flooding - the Fort Calhoun and Cooper stations - are "very prepared right now to deal with that situation.

"It certainly is a challenge, the water levels are very high. But all of the vital safety systems at those plants are being protected," said Jaczko. "And we've got our staff here 24/7, around the clock, to make sure that the licensees take the appropriate action.

"Certainly it is a picture that could cause one to be concerned. But the vital and important safety systems that are inside those plants are being protected. There's lots of sandbags and other kinds of barriers on all the vital doors to make sure that water can't get into places that it shouldn't be."

Anchor Chris Wragge asked about the likelihood of an emergency similar to what occurred at the Fukushima-Da-ichi plant in Japan which was crippled by floodwaters that killed the electrical systems and the cooling systems, creating a near-meltdown.

"That's not what we anticipate," said Jaczko. "All of the vital systems, the electrical distribution systems, are being protected. They have emergency backup diesel generators in the event that they would lose their normal power supplies. So we think that all the right systems are in place. But just to be sure we have our inspectors here making sure, 'round the clock, that all the right precautions are being taken."

Jaczko also said the NRC will render whatever assistance is necessary to the Department of Energy, which oversees the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Aging nuclear plants a safety risk?

According to a year-long investigation by the Associated Press, the country is far from prepared for a nuclear emergency. Citing the NRC's own data, the report suggests America's nuclear power facilities are outdated and, in some cases, a safety risk.

The report claims 66 power plants have been relicensed to run 20 years beyond their original shelf life, often in once-rural areas that have quadrupled in population since 1980.

Even more alarming, many of these plants are so close to large populations that, in the event of an emergency, a large-scale evacuation would be next to impossible to execute ... especially in a place like Indian Point, just 36 miles from New York City.

"At a time when the nuclear industry is under considerable public scrutiny, this kind of information really doesn't do anything to build public trust or confidence in the nuclear industry," James Acton, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told "The Early Show."

"I think the thing that worries me most is, what happens if there is an event similar to Fukushima?" said Acton.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was flooded by a tsunami earlier this year, and the NRC told Americans living in Japan to evacuate outside a 50-mile radius ... well above the 10-mile radius standard set up by the NRC 30 year ago.

Fukushima children to receive radiation meters
Complete coverage: Disaster in Japan

The AP report concludes with an aging nuclear program - poor maintenance has led to leaks of the radioactive chemical tritium in at least three-quarters of all U.S. nuclear facilities, and has even contaminated drinking water in Minnesota and Illinois.

"I think it's cause for careful public scrutiny and clear transparent answers from the nuclear industry and from the NRC," said Acton.

AP's investigation:
Feds, industry rewrite U.S. nuclear history
Population density around nuke plants soars
Radioactive leaks found at 75% of US nuke sites
U.S. nuke regulators weaken safety rules

When asked on "The Early Show" about emergency plans at U.S. nuclear power stations, Jaczko said, "We have a very robust emergency preparedness program. And let me say this: That program really only kind of kicks in after the many, many layers of protection and defense that we have to prevent any kind of release of radiation to the public. All of those systems would have to fail before we would ever really get into a situation to need an evacuation.

"We require every plant in the United States to test those programs every two years. It's a very comprehensive exercise involving state governments, local governments, the NRC, as well as the utilities. So it's a very robust program that is there to ensure, in that very unlikely event, that the people will be protected. "

Wragge also asked Jaczko to respond the AP report's finding that three-quarters of U.S. nuclear power sites have leaked the radioactive isotope tridium.

"Well, first and foremost, this is really not an acceptable situation for any nuclear power plant to have this kind of leaking tridium," he replied. "So we're working with all of the plants that do to make sure they either repair the piping systems or remediate the area to get rid of the ground water in the most effective and most safe way.

"But fundamentally, it's not something where the public is really being threatened from a health standpoint. It's really, right now, just more of a challenge on the reactor sites, and has the potential, if it's not mitigated, to ultimately have some very low-level impacts off the site. But, we're comfortable that the right steps are being taken to prevent that from ever happening."

Comments

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.