Five Years Later: Nuclear Plants are Safer than Ever

March 11  will always be an important date in history. The tragic events that unfolded that day across Japan, where thousands lost their lives, livelihoods and homes, and also affected the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, caught the attention of the world. Five years later, the nuclear industry has made significant changes to make nuclear energy safer than ever to produce.

A hallmark of the nuclear industry is sharing operating experience, specifically between different companies, to further increase safety and reliability. The response to the events at Fukushima were swift. Within days of watching these events in Japan, Duke Energy immediately took actions to re-verify that each of our nuclear plants was in a high state of readiness to respond to similar emergencies. Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) conducted thorough inspections at all nuclear sites across the country, focusing on each plant’s ability to cope with flooding and a complete loss of off-site power, as happened at Fukushima Daiichi.

Within just a few months, the NRC Near-term Task Force developed a three-tiered program of safety enhancements that has become the foundation of post-Fukushima activities. At the end of the first year, the industry received orders to take specific actions and requests to provide additional information to help plan future work.

At Duke Energy, we organized our strategies, drafted our own specific plans, bought emergency equipment and laid the groundwork for plant changes. Since late 2012, we have implemented plans at our six nuclear sites and been heavily involved in supporting the industry initiative create two National Response Centers (SAFER) to stage emergency equipment that is ready to back up any operating U.S. nuclear unit.

Now, five years after Fukushima, nuclear plants are even more prepared to respond to events beyond their conservative designs. Visible evidence is seen in buildings that house a variety of emergency equipment. Each site has a flexible and diverse coping strategy in place that can be deployed as needed in an emergency. Even beyond today’s visible signs, other Fukushima response efforts will continue as plants and FLEX strategies are measured against contemporary flooding and seismic standards used to build new plants. Future lessons from this ongoing work will prepare us even better for extreme events like tornadoes, earthquakes and flooding.

The work following the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami is a sizable, ongoing commitment that has required an enormous effort. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) reports the industry has “invested more than $4 billion and devoted thousands of person-hours to put in place new responses to extreme events.”

Japan shut down all of its 48 commercial nuclear reactors after the March 11 events. Disconnecting from nuclear power was difficult for Japan, which struggles with increased carbon dioxide emissions and increased electricity costs. In 2015, Japan took steps toward revitalizing its nuclear industry by allowing nuclear plants to begin operation again.

Germany is another country that decided to end its involvement in nuclear energy following the events of March 11. The country shut down eight of its nuclear plants, but similar to Japan, has faced rising electricity costs and increased carbon emissions. The average cost per kilowatt-hour in Germany is now 35 cents compared to an average of 12 cents in the U.S.

There is still a great deal of work to be completed in Japan to decommission Fukushima Daiichi, but nuclear plants are safer today and will continue to be even safer in the future as we learn from this experience and continue to share lessons learned across the industry.

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