Statement of Senator Barbara Boxer
Joint Hearing: Full Committee and Subcommittee on
Clean Air and Nuclear Safety
"Review of the Nuclear Emergency in Japan
and Implications for the U.S."
April 12, 2011
(Remarks as prepared for delivery.)
Just over one month ago today, Japan was hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a tsunami that measured roughly 30 feet high. The devastation brought on by these catastrophic events is heartbreaking, and our deepest condolences go out to the victims and their families.
This tragedy serves as an important wake-up call for the United States, and we cannot afford to ignore it. If there is one lesson to be learned, it is that we must plan for the unexpected, and when we know of threats, we must act quickly to address them. So what can we learn from the tragic situation in Japan?
The U.S. has 104 commercial nuclear power reactors operating at 65 sites in 31 states. Twenty three reactors are boiling water reactors with Mark I containment systems, like the ones at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It is true that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has instituted an improvement program for this type of reactor. However, the lessons from the tragedy in Japan demonstrate the importance of reassessing the safety of these reactors in the U.S.
The compromised reactors in Japan, like those in the U.S., were built on a set of assumptions regarding the potential magnitude of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. We know that some U.S. nuclear facilities are located in areas with high and moderate seismic activity. However, earthquakes can actually happen almost anywhere. In addition, some nuclear plants are in areas that are subject to the risk of tsunamis, and we need to determine if the risk is greater than what we have assumed in the past.
The situation in Japan has shown us that we must take a hard look at the risk assumptions that were made when nuclear reactors were designed and built in the United States. We should also consider any new data and scientific information that has become available since the reactors were completed.
As a result of the catastrophic situation in Japan, Senator Tom Carper and I have called on the NRC to conduct a comprehensive review of all nuclear facilities in the United States to assess their capacity to withstand and respond to natural or man-made disasters.
Senator Dianne Feinstein and I have also requested that special and immediate attention be given to those U.S. nuclear reactors that are subject to significant seismic activity or are located near a coastline, such as the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in California. The NRC has identified both of the plants in California as being located in "high seismicity" zones. The Commission has found that another nine plants, which are located in North Carolina, Illinois, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, are in "moderate seismicity" zones.
Both reactors in California are located in high-density areas -- roughly 424,000 people live within 50 miles of Diablo Canyon and 7.4 million people live within 50 miles of San Onofre. Other nuclear facilities in the U.S. are also located in highly populated areas.
Although evacuation plans are generally a state and local concern, there have been calls for more involvement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assess the adequacy of emergency preparedness plans, including evacuations. Because safety of the American people is our number one priority, I urge the NRC to examine the adequacy of emergency response plans at nuclear facilities in California and across the nation.
Today we will hear testimony from the Chairman of the NRC, Greg Jaczko, who will discuss the current situation in Japan and its implications for nuclear safety here at home. I understand that the comprehensive review of nuclear facilities across the nation has begun, and I look forward to hearing from the Chairman about what this review will entail.
I am also pleased to have the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa Jackson, here today to discuss the systems EPA has in place to protect the American public and our environment. I am particularly interested to hear how the EPA is monitoring radiation in the U.S., what levels of radiation have been detected to date, and what role EPA is playing in the overall U.S. response to the nuclear emergency in Japan.
We know that low levels of radiation have been detected in the U.S. from the compromised reactors in Japan, which are located thousands of miles away. We can only imagine what the potential impacts on human health and the environment would be if the U.S. experienced the same levels of radiation exposure that are occurring in Japan today.
Small, but elevated, levels of radiation have been detected in milk and other food products in Japan. The EPA has taken steps to increase the level of monitoring of milk, precipitation, drinking water, and other sources of potential radiation exposure, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is screening Japanese products for radiation at U.S. borders.
Although experts continue to say the American public's risk of being exposed to harmful amounts of radiation from Japan is small, on-going comprehensive monitoring and transparent reporting to the American public is essential. We must ensure that adequate systems are in place to measure the levels of radiation exposure across the nation and to promptly disclose that information to the American people in an accessible, understandable manner.
Whether it is the NRC's review process of our nuclear reactors or EPA's monitoring of our drinking water, complete openness, transparency and prompt disclosure are vital to maintain the federal government's credibility and the confidence of the American people.
The federal government must heed the wakeup call from the catastrophe in Japan. As Chairman of this Committee, I will continue to provide vigorous oversight to ensure that we learn the tragic lessons from the Fukushima reactors and take reasonable steps to make our nation's nuclear facilities as safe and secure as possible.
I know that Chairman Jaczko and Administrator Jackson share my concern for the safety of the American people, and our common goal is to ensure that we are adequately prepared to respond should the unthinkable happen, as it did in Japan. Today's hearing is one step in that process.
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