"It can happen here": Three years after Fukushima, U.S. vulnerable to nuclear disaster

Rick Klein, Olivier Knox, Jordyn Phelps, and Alexandra Dukakis
Power Players

Top Line

Three years after the catastrophic nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima power plant, a group of nuclear experts are warning that the United States is vulnerable to a similar disaster.

“It can happen here,” physicist Edwin Lyman, co-author of the book "Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster," told “Top Line.”

Lyman, who is a senior scientist at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said the United States’ regulation of nuclear facilities is plagued by the same sort of “complacency” that “contributed to the circumstances that led to the disaster in Japan” and that the industry is resistant to investing in the necessary safety upgrades.

“We think there's a lot more room for safety improvements,” Lyman said. “In fact, we need to make those improvements to reduce the risk, but we don't think the industry and the regulators share that same view. They are just tinkering around the edges and not making fundamental safety reforms.”

He warned specifically of facilities that are at risk of earthquakes. There are many decades-old nuclear plants, he explained, that were built in locations that seismologists have only since discovered are at risk of earthquakes. But little has been done to upgrade those plants accordingly.

“We're not prepared today against these potentially large earthquakes,” said Lyman, who points to the “big price tag” for retrofitting facilities as one of the biggest reasons the changes haven’t been made.

He also noted that many reactors are also vulnerable to flooding.

“We have dozens of reactors that are downstream of large dams,” Lyman said. “And if there were a large earthquake that caused a dam failure, you could have that nuclear reactor site inundated in a matter of hours without time to prepare for the flood.”

Lyman said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did some “soul searching” after the Fukushima incident to recommend new safeguards, but the new standards do not go far enough. As one example, he pointed to vents on nuclear reactors. As part of the Fukushima clean-up process, reactors have had to be vented to release pressure inside the containments, which has meant that radioactive material has been leaked into the environment.

“Here in the United States, the NRC decided, ‘OK, we need to harden vents so that we have that opportunity,’” he said. “But we don't necessarily have to put filters on those vents. So, here we have a situation where you might have to vent the containment if there's a meltdown but you don't necessarily have to have filters to contain radioactivity that you vent.”

Lyman said stronger Congressional oversight is in order to force the nuclear industry to make improvements it might otherwise resist.

“In Congress, we think there are some members who have been strong supporters of nuclear safety,” he said. “Sen. [Barbara] Boxer, Sen. [Ed] Markey, Sen. [Bernie] Sanders come to mind, but they are faced with very well organized industry effort to water down any potential safety upgrades and certainly to block more congressional oversight.”

To hear more about the risks Lyman says the United States is taking with its nuclear plants, check out this episode of “Top Line.”

ABC News' Michael Conte, Gary Westphalen, Pat French, and Tom Staton contributed to this episode.