Nuclear safety expert: It could happen here

A woman holds her dog as they are scanned for radiation at a temporary scanning center for residents living close to the quake-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Gregory Bull

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed the thoughts of many Americans when she said Wednesday what's happening in Japan raises questions about the safety of nuclear plants here in the United States.

CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports that nine major American cities are within 50 miles of a reactor.

The nuclear emergency in Japan is of particular significance to Americans living close to older nuclear reactors of exactly the same design as the crippled Japanese plant.

Twenty three of the Boiling Water Reactors Mark 1, built by General Electric mostly in the 1970s, are still operating at 16 plants spread across much of the country.

Special report: Disaster in Japan
Nuclear meltdowns explained
Japan nuke crisis solution nears first try

It's a design that has worried Dale Bridenbaugh in the 35 years since he worked as a safety manager for GE.

"My job was to try and figure out how to make these plants run better," Bridenabugh said.

He was disturbed by the possible consequences if a plant ever lost power.

"I was most concerned about the fact that we discovered that we didn't really know what would happen," Bridenbaugh said.

After GE and the utilities operating the reactors ignored his concerns, Bridenbaugh and two colleagues quit in 1976.

"The containment system response would be a failure similar to what we're seeing now in Fukushima," Bridenbaugh said.

The Mark 1 containment system is somewhat more compact than others but still has multiple layers of metal and reinforced concrete surrounding the fuel rods. However, the Mark 1 also has a unique feature: The spent fuel rods which are still radioactive are stored for cooling in water filled pools above the containment structure under a much lighter roof.

At Fukushima those spent rods have caused big problems.

There was some hydrogen that's generated in the spent fuel somewhere in that facility that ignited and blew the roof off," said Thomas McKone, of the University of California at Berkeley.

In a statement Wednesday, GE said: "Over the last four decades, the Mark I has been modified in the form of retrofits to address technology improvements and changing regulatory requirements."

Bridenbaugh acknowledges the improvements, but says the same danger remains for the Mark 1 reactors still operating here.

"Anything that would wipe out the backup power systems in these plants could result in the same thing that's happened in Fukushima," Bridenbaugh said.

While the risk is there, so is the constant need for energy. With 20 percent of our electricity coming from nuclear energy right now, even older plants are considered essential.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.