U.S. nuclear agency chief leaves reporters with more questions than answers

Could it happen here? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave MSNBC a list of the ten American nuclear plants most at-risk for critical failure in the event of an earthquake. The primary issues were the chance of a devastating quake and the design of the plant. The good news, the government told MSNBC, is that plants on major fault lines were built to withstand serious earthquakes. The bad news is that new surveying technology has revealed earthquake risks in the eastern and central states, where plants were not designed to handle the damage. What parts of the country have the most to fear from an earthquake turning into a nuclear emergency? The answers may surprise you. istockphoto

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney brought a special guest to the briefing room today - Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Gregory Jaczko.

He was asked repeatedly about the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants, but his answers did little to satisfy reporters looking for information that might assure readers and viewers that American nuclear plants are built to withstand a crisis of this magnitude.

Asked whether the Japan incident had led to safety concerns at U.S. nuclear facilities, Jaczko gave an equally general reply: the NRC is "always focused on the safety and security of nuclear power plants in this country. That will always be something that we do. Whenever there's any new information, we always take that information into consideration and -- and make changes, if necessary. But right now, we continue to believe that nuclear power plants in this country operate safely and securely."

In the White House briefing room that's exactly the kind vague answer that always provokes a series of follow-ups.

Is there any new attempt to study the ability of U.S. plants to withstand an earthquake? Another imprecise answer: All U.S. plants are "designed to withstand significant natural phenomena, like earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis."

I tried to pin him down: "Would plants in the United States be able to withstand a quake of this magnitude?"

No luck. His response: "I don't want to speculate on anything like that at this point."

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I followed up with a one last attempt at getting a precise answer: "In the United States, are they built to withstand a quake of this magnitude, of an 8.9?" But he responded with another generality: "At this point what I can say is we have a strong safety program in place to deal with seismic events that are likely to -- to happen at any nuclear facility in this country." (watch the exchange in the video above)

Only after we get past the immediate crisis, he said, will the NRC will gather information and take a closer look at what this means for U.S. plants.

The truth is, of course, that Mr. Jaczko knows vastly more about this than any briefing room reporter. And maybe there is no precise answer to our questions, at least not yet. But for those of us seeking to understand how U.S. reactors would fare in a similar situation, his answers were pretty thin gruel.

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On another question about how the Japan quake could affect America, the NRC was much more precise - eventually.

Whe I asked whether harmful radiation from Japan could reach America under a worst case scenario, Mr. Jaczko said it was "very unlikely."

Apparently even the NRC was unsettled by that answer, because shortly after the briefing I received an unprompted email from a senior NRC official offering a more definitive response: "Based on the type of reactor and nature of the events, NRC expert analysts see no scenarios in which harmful levels of radiation would reach Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories or the West Coast of the United States."

Video Below: How close is Japan to a nuclear meltdown?


Chip Reid is CBS News' chief White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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