As Japan struggles to contain the damage at the smoldering Fukushima nuclear complex, questions are being raised about nuclear power plants with the same design in the U.S.
Local plant operators remain confident but industry watchdogs think more scrutiny is essential.
Across the U.S., 23 of the nation's 104 atomic power plants are General Electric boiling water reactors — the same design as the one in Japan that has the world on edge.
In a statement, General Electric says it has been working round the clock with its Japanese colleagues on responding to Japan's nuclear crisis. The company defended the performance of its boiling water plant there, noting it continues to perform as designed, even after an earthquake of historic proportions.
But Dr. Thomas Cochran, the Natural Resources Defence Council's top nuclear physicist, said the boiling water reactor design was controversial when it was first introduced in the 1970s. He said it doesn't have the same massive and expensive containment structures as pressurized water reactors that can give plant operators some breathing room if things start to go wrong.
Cochran claimed GE "papered over the issues" that were raised by other experts: "And as we see in the Japanese case there is a clear design deficiency," Cochran said.
Cochran's assertion that the GE design was "controversial" and that problems were "papered-over" is echoed by reporting of New York Times correspondent Tom Zeller.
Zeller quotes from internal Atomic Energy Commission documents (the precursor of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) dating back to 1972. An AEC safety expert raised concerns about the vulnerability of the boiled water reactor's less robust containment capability that would make it vulnerable to a hydrogen explosion — a likely scenario in the current Fukushima fiasco.
The Times quotes an internal sympathetic response from Joseph Hendrie, who went on to lead the NRC, and reports Hendrie told his colleague that had suggested a ban on the GE design that while such a ban might be "attractive" it would "be the end of nuclear power."
In New Jersey, Exelon's Oyster Creek facility opened in 1969. NRDC's Cochran said it has the same design as Fukushima. Exelon's April Schilpp said after a lengthy review by regulators, the plant got a 20-year license renewal.
"We went through all of those tests and the NRC had determined Oyster Creek is operating safely and can continue to operate safely for another twenty years," Schilpp said.
In 2009, the outgoing Corzine Administration sided with environmentalists and demanded Exelon build cooling towers to reduce the plant's impact on marine life. Exelon said the plant was not worth the hundreds of millions of dollars they said it would take to build the towers. Under an agreement with the Christie Administration, Exelon did not have to build the towers but agreed to shut down a decade sooner, in 2019.
Meanwhile, New Jersey's other GE boiling water reactor, PSEG's Hope Creek on the Delaware River, is licensed to operate until 2026. PSEG's Joe Delmar said the plant's design has been customized to safeguard the surrounding community.
"Plant designs are required to take into account the most sever natural phenomenon that has been reported for the geographic region," Delmar said.
But critics said Fukushima should be a game-changer for the atomic power industry and their regulators. Otherwise, the NRDC's Cochran said, there could be tragic repercussions here in the U.S.
"You're seeing in Japan the consequences of designing to something less than worse case," Cochran said.
Other atomic power plants in our region using the boiling water reactor model includes New York's Firzpatrick (1974) and Nine Mile Point (1969).