Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- The Japanese Earthquake and Nuclear Incidents

Posted on March 14, 2011


March 14, 2011

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, as the Senator from Arizona and the Senator from Connecticut have done eloquently in their ways, I wish to express on behalf of the people of Tennessee to the people of Japan our sympathy for the devastation they have experienced.

I applaud the administration and the American people for their immediate response to offer assistance, charitable aid, and search and rescue teams to find survivors. There is no more important two-country alliance than that of Japan and the United States. The former Ambassador Mike Mansfield used to teach that to all of us younger Governors during the eighties and nineties. We will stand with the people of Japan until they recover from this disaster.

There is a special relationship between the Japanese and Tennesseans because of the location of so many Japanese industries in our State over the last 30 years. As a result, Tennesseans have been reaching out to our friends and their families in Japan.

We should also commend the Japanese for their courage they have shown in dealing with the devastation and in particular with their level-headed response to the damage at their nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. In this age when instant communication can sometimes create misinformation and even panic, the Japanese leadership and nuclear scientists are working with organizations from around the world in responding to the danger and keeping the rest of the world informed.

This is the largest earthquake in Japan's recorded history -- 30 times more forceful than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and 700 times stronger than the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. While the risk is by no means over and the events in Japan continue to evolve, the reactor safety systems so far appear to have done their job in withstanding the earthquake, tsunami, power loss, and explosions, and no other reactor containment structures seem to have been breached in these worst-case situations. The lessons that America can take away from this tragedy are this: Learn all we can from the Japanese experience to make the operation of American reactors as safe as possible.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. Navy has safely traveled more than 136 million miles on nuclear power. Today, 104 civilian reactors produce 20 percent of America's electricity and 70 percent of our clean electricity. That is without sulfur, without nitrogen, without mercury, or without carbon. No one has ever died from a nuclear accident at any of our commercial or Navy reactors.

Let me say that again. No one has ever died from a reactor accident at one of our Navy or commercial reactors.

Without nuclear power, it is hard to imagine how the United States could produce enough cheap, reliable, clean electricity to keep our economy moving and keep our jobs from going overseas.

Here is what we know about what has happened in Japan. We have all seen the video of the explosion of the building at Daiichi unit 1, now unit 3. I am sure many of us have thought those were reactors exploding. Fortunately, that is not what happened. A buildup of hydrogen gas in the secondary containment structures led to explosions which destroyed the buildings themselves but the primary containment structures inside appear not to have been compromised. To reduce the resulting increase in containment pressure, a relatively small amount of radioactive vapor has been dispersed into the atmosphere. The Tokyo Electric Power Company has told us that the highest level of radiation detected onsite to date is 155.7 millirem per hour, and that has since been reduced to 4.4 millirem per hour. But what does that mean in regard to human exposure risk? To help put that in perspective, here are a couple of facts. The average American receives about 300 millirem of radiation exposure each year from naturally occurring sources, such as the Sun, and another 300 millirem of radiation exposure from medical applications, such as CT scans and x rays.

What did happen after the earthquake is that the ensuing tsunami crippled the backup electrical generators and batteries needed to keep cooling water circulating in the plants after they had been safely shut down. This ultimately led to use of the last line of defense emergency core cooling system -- flooding the entire containment vessel with seawater. While this pretty much assures that the reactors will not ever be used again, as long as the seawater continues to be pumped in, the possibilities of further damage ought to be halted.

People have been evacuated and authorities are taking every precaution, and that, of course, is what we wish to see. Despite one of the largest earthquakes in the world's history, with accompanying tsunamis, fires, and aftershocks -- multiple disasters compounded one on top of other -- the primary containment at reactors near the epicenter appears not to have been breached and the radioactive venting appears to have been controlled and minimal.

This experience has brought back memories of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Although we remember Three Mile Island as the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, it is also important to remember that no one was hurt at Three Mile Island. As I said before, there has never been a death resulting from a commercial nuclear accident in American history. What happened at Three Mile Island was basically an operator failure. A valve failed, and when the automatic safety mechanism kicked in, the operators overrode it because they became confused by the number of alarms.

Three Mile Island completely changed the American nuclear industry. The Kemeny Commission, appointed by President Carter, analyzed the problems and made many recommendations, almost all of which have been put into practice. The valve that started the whole thing had failed nine times, but the manufacturer tried to keep it a secret.

People in the nuclear industry then did not talk to each other. Now safety is a top priority of the nuclear industry. The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations collectively shares best practices to achieve the highest levels of safety, as well as reliability. Nuclear operators train for 5 years before they can take over in the control room. They spend 1 week out of every 5 to 6 weeks in a simulator honing their skills. The nuclear companies have special emergency teams that can be dispatched anywhere in the country at a moment's notice. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector practically lives onsite. What is more, every reactor in the country is on the hook for $112 million if something goes wrong at another reactor. As one can imagine, they watch each other very carefully.

I have talked with any number of Navy veterans who had experience with nuclear commands. One reason I am confident there have not been any nuclear reactor accidents in the nuclear Navy that killed anyone over the last half century is because the responsibility for the safety of that reactor goes right up to the captain of the vessel.

It was not the same at Chernobyl, the infamous 1986 Soviet accident. Chernobyl involved 60 immediate deaths and radiation exposures that, according to the World Health Organization, may eventually result in 4,000 cancers. But Chernobyl was a completely different kind of accident and the result of different technology.

More than that, the Soviets had not built a containment structure at Chernobyl. The containment structures at these Japanese reactors -- 40 to 80 inches thick concrete and steel -- appear, as we speak this afternoon, to have withstood an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, tsunami, power failure, and explosion.

There are gas and oil fires raging in Japan. Water and sewer systems are damaged. The possibility of disease and starvation is imminent. There are a great many things to worry about in addition to the problems with the Japanese reactors. There are tens of thousands of people still unaccounted for. Right now, the effort needs to be helping those who need help, containing further damage and risk, and getting Japan back up and running again. Then we can take the lessons learned from this earthquake and tsunami and apply them to make our nuclear plants as safe as possible and help the world do the same.

America's 104 nuclear reactors provide, as I mentioned earlier, 20 percent of our electricity, 70 percent of our clean electricity. Japan has 54 reactors and gets 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear. France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. The United States invented nuclear power, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not issued a construction license for a new reactor in more than 30 years. There are 65 reactors under construction around the world. However, only one of those 65 is in the United States, and that is the construction of a previously halted project by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Japanese and the French have surged into the lead in terms of nuclear power and are now being challenged by Korea and Russia on the international market. China, with 27 nuclear reactors currently under construction, will soon join them all.

Nuclear power today provides about 15 percent of the world's electricity. While there are always risks with every form of energy, it is important that we be clear about the risks each type of energy poses. But it is also important to remember that we do not abandon highway systems because bridges and overpasses collapse during earthquakes. The 1.6 million of us who fly daily would not stop flying after a tragic airplane crash. We cannot stop drilling after a tragic oil spill unless we want to rely more on foreign oil, run up our prices, turn our oil drilling over to a few big oil companies and all our oil hauling over to more leaky tankers. Mr. President, 34,000 people die in motor vehicle accidents every year, but we do not stop driving because we have to get our children to school and ourselves to work. In all of these cases, when there are accidents, we do our best to examine the tragedies and make our continued operation and our lives as safe as possible. That is what we need to do here.

Our reactors in the United States are built to the highest standards in the world. The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in a press briefing today: "Right now we believe that the nuclear power plants in this country operate safely and securely."

The Chairman said: ‘Nuclear power plants in the United States are designed to very high standards for earthquake effects. All our plants are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena, like earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis. We will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the safety and security of nuclear power plants in the country. But right now, we believe we have a very strong program in place.’

"As we get more information from Japan," said the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "as this immediate crisis ultimately comes to an end, we will look at whatever information we can gain from this event and see if there are any changes we need to make in our system."

The Deputy Secretary of Energy said: “Nuclear power has been a critical component of the United States energy portfolio.” The White House press secretary, on behalf of President Obama, said: “Nuclear power remains a part of the President's overall energy plan.”

Despite the fact that there has never been a death as a result of the operation of a commercial American reactor or in our nuclear Navy, which has been using reactors in its ships and submarines since the 1950s, our goal should be to continue every effort to try to make certain the operation of our existing and new nuclear power plants are as safe as possible.

For example, some have suggested that so-called passive cooling systems that operate on natural convection could prevent the problems that arose in Japan when the backup power to pump water was lost.

Nuclear power is a demanding but manageable technology. As we move forward, let us learn the proper lessons from this Japanese experience to make sure that in the United States and in the world, we are even better prepared for the unexpected events of the future.