Nuclear Meltdown in Japan and it’s Impact on Plant Relicensing in the United States

In Japan, the recent earthquake and tsunami has had a significant and unfortunate impact.  In addition to causing thousands of deaths and countless destruction, the 9.0 earthquake and 45-foot tsunami wrecked havoc on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.[1] When the earthquake hit, cooling systems for the plant’s reactors lost power.  Tsunami flooding also disabled diesel generators intended to produce back-up electricity for the systems.[2] With power failure came overheating in the thirty-year-old plant’s reactors, and overheating in a nuclear plant is a very bad thing.  At the Fukushima plant, overheating led to an explosion in one of the reactors.[3] Draining coolant levels in multiple reactors required the injection of seawater.[4] Despite these efforts, a second explosion occurred in another reactor at the plant a few days after the first one occurred.[5] This was followed by a third explosion in yet another reactor.[6] Despite the tireless efforts plant employees, the situation at the facility remains serious.[7]

The events unfolding in Japan have had a significant impact on the debate over what to do with the aging nuclear facilities here in the United States.  Many of the old plants in this country share design features with the Fukushima plant.  The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, for instance, located in Brattleboro, Vermont, has the same GE Mark 1 reactor and spent fuel storage system.[8]

Vermont Yankee’s original 40-year license from the NRC is set to expire in 2012.  Entergy, the corporation that owns the plant, just recently received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to continue running the facility for an additional 20 years.[9] However, Entergy is currently battling with the state of Vermont, which has denied Entergy their approval to continue operating Vermont Yankee.[10] Tritium leaks at the plant in January of 2010 have placed the safety of Vermont Yankee in doubt with the Vermont public, and the situation in Japan has not helped Entergy make their case.[11]

Entergy officials are taking note of the events unfolding in Japan and the public’s reactions to them.  One official noted, “We have a full team of people that are collecting information that is coming out from Japan. . . . We do regular surveillances to make sure that equipment is available.  We are completely prepared for any accident.  We’re revalidating all that information.”[12] The NRC is taking stock of the situation as well.  A spokesman for the NRC noted that federal regulators planned to study the accident in Japan to improve safety at U.S. reactors.[13] Federal regulators also said they would have to delay issuing Vermont Yankee’s license renewal because NRC staff are busy assisting Japan with its ongoing nuclear crisis.[14] This does not, however, appear to be the NRC backing away from its previous approval.  While Vermont Yankee will be included by the agency in a “systematic and methodical look at all of the plants to see if . . . there are any modifications or changes” that need to be made, NRC officials were careful to note that the review is not likely to halt the license renewal for the plant.[15] Certainly, Vermont is not at risk for the kind of double attack that transpired in Japan.  Earthquakes of the magnitude that occurred in Japan simply do not happen in the Green Mountain State, and it is unlikely that a tsunami would form on the Connecticut River.  However, natural disasters can occur anywhere, and as seen in Japan, even thorough planning and preparation may be fruitless in preventing a catastrophe.  Whether the NRC’s license renewal for Vermont Yankee, or any other aging plant in this country, is the best course of action is open to debate.  However, it is encouraging to see the NRC acknowledge that the events in Japan necessitate a reexamination of exactly how safe our nuclear plants really are.  Hopefully the message will be taken to heart, and appropriate actions will be taken regarding plants that turn out to be unfit to continue operating in light of events in Japan.


[1] Ken Belson & Hiroko Tabuchi, Confidence Slips Away as Japan Battle Nuclear Peril, N.Y. Times, Mar. 30, 2010, at A1.

[2] Fukushima Nuclear Accident Update Log: Update of 11 March 2011, Int’l Atomic Energy Agency, available at http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2011/fukushima110311.html.

[3] Fukushima Nuclear Accident Update Log: Update of 12 March 2011, Int’l Atomic Energy Agency, available at http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2011/fukushima120311.html.

[4] Fukushima Nuclear Accident Update Log: Update of 11 March 2011, Int’l Atomic Energy Agency, available at http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2011/fukushima140311.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Fukushima Nuclear Accident Update Log: Update of 15 March 2011, Int’l Atomic Energy Agency, available at http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2011/fukushima150311.html.

[7] Fukushima Nuclear Accident Update Log: Update of 31 March 2011, Int’l Atomic Energy Agency, available at http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/tsunamiupdate01.html.

[8] Ric Cengeri, Parallels Drawn Between Vermont Yankee and Japan Plant, Vt. Pub. Radio (Mar. 17, 2011), available at http://www.vpr.net/news_detail/90353/.

[9] Ross Sneyd, NRC Clears Vermont Yankee for License Extension, Vt. Pub. Radio (Mar. 10, 2011), available at http://www.vpr.net/news_detail/90281/.

[10] Matthew L. Wald, Vermont Senate Votes to Close Nuclear Plant, N.Y. Times, Feb. 24, 2010, at A14.

[11] Id.

[12] Cengeri, supra note 8.

[13] John Dillon, Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Prompts Calls for U.S. Safety Review, Vt. Pub. Radio (Mar. 15, 2011), available at http://www.vpr.net/news_detail/90318/.

[14] John Dillon, Japan Crisis Delays Yankee Lincense, Vt. Pub. Radio (Mar. 16, 2011), available at http://www.vpr.net/news_detail/90330/.

[15] John Dillon, Yankee Included in Federal Review of Nuclear Plants, Vt. Pub. Radio (Mar. 16, 2011), available at http://www.vpr.net/news_detail/90340/.

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