By WRCB Staff

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - Observers with the nuclear renaissance in the U.S. are watching closely what happens with a nuclear power plant in Japan following the historic earthquake on Friday.

MSNBC.com reported an official with Japan's nuclear safety commission says that a meltdown at the nuclear power plant is possible. Ryohei Shiomi, of Japan's nuclear safety commission, said Saturday that officials were checking whether a meltdown had taken place at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which had lost cooling ability in the aftermath of Friday's powerful earthquake. 

If the fuel rods melted or are melting, a breach could develop in the nuclear reactor vessel and the question then becomes one of how strong the containment structure around the vessel is and whether it has been undermined by the earthquake, experts said.

Shiomi said that even if there was a meltdown, it wouldn't affect humans outside a six-mile radius. Japan earlier Saturday declared states of emergency for five nuclear reactors at two power plants after the units lost cooling ability in the aftermath of Friday's powerful earthquake. Thousands of residents were evacuated as workers struggled to get the reactors under control to prevent meltdowns. Even if a meltdown happened, systems are in place to keep the radiation from ever leaving the facilities. 

TVA Watching Closely

TVA spokesman and nuclear energy expert Ray Golden spoke with the NBC affiliate in Knoxville about the situation in Japan.

Golden said, "Obviously this is a significant event for the nuclear industry. We want to offer any assistance and advice that we can. We also are very interested in exactly what's gone on."

While saying it is a serious event, Golden pointed out the Japanese are known for their dedication to emergency planning. He added that U.S. power plants meet standards to sustain the worst recorded earthquake for its area.

"Between the industry and the regulators, we (in the U.S.) will conduct an assessment of what happened in Japan, are there lessons learned, and are there actions that should be taken at our plants? But at this point it's still just evolving so we really don't know."

A TVA spokesperson released this statement late Saturday afternoon:

The men and women of the Tennessee Valley Authority join with the rest of the nation and the world in expressing our deep sorrow over the tragic loss of life and property during the recent Japanese earthquake.

All six of TVA's nuclear reactors are located in areas that are not prone to frequent or extremely large earthquakes. They are designed, built and operated to withstand an earthquake of larger magnitude than any recorded in the geographic region. This is called the "design-basis earthquake," and it is what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), licenses and regulates all nuclear plants to withstand.

Nuclear plants are built with numerous redundant safety systems (power, fire protection and reactor cooling) to ensure safe shut down of the plant should a similar event occur. The safety systems include a multi-foot thick, air-tight, containment building which is designed to safely house the plant's nuclear reactor and critical equipment in a localized earthquake or other natural or man-made emergency.

The NRC closely regulates all engineering, safety systems, and emergency plans through ongoing reviews. The NRC has on-site, regional and federal personnel who oversee the safe operation of U.S. nuclear power plant operations.

In September 2010, the NRC issued its re-evaluation of seismic risk that applies to all nuclear power plants in the Central and Eastern U.S., including all six TVA reactors. Using the latest earthquake information, the NRC found that "...seismic design of currently operating reactors provides an adequate safety margin."

Worst-Case Scenarios

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, "If you are exposed to small amounts of radiation over a long time, it raises your risk of cancer. It can also cause mutations in your genes, which you could pass on to any children you have after the exposure."

"A lot of radiation over a short period, such as from a radiation emergency, can cause burns or radiation sickness."

If exposure is large enough, death or premature aging could occur.

Anti-Nuclear Groups Respond

CNIC statement: The Citizens' Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) is deeply concerned for the health and safety of the people affected by the earthquakes and tsunamis that have struck Japan over the last two days. We are particularly concerned for the people in the vicinity of nuclear power plants, including workers who are trying to minimize the scope of the disaster. Besides the question about how this accident will unfold, the big question now is, will the government and the nuclear industry acknowledge its mistakes and change track?

Greenpeace statement: "How many more warnings do we before we finally grasp that nuclear reactors are inherently hazardous? The nuclear industry always tells us that situation like this cannot happen with modern reactors, yet Japan is currently in the middle of a potentially devastating nuclear crisis. Once again, we are reminded of the inherent risks of nuclear power, which will always be vulnerable to the potentially deadly combination of human error, design failure and natural disaster."

Nuclear Renaissance

For over a decade, discussions of a "nuclear renaissance" or revival have been swirling. Countries in Eastern Europe and Asia have, over time, increased the use of nuclear power, causing the United States to take note. But with the harmful effects from radiation exposure, some here on home soil could fear the energy alternative.

In 1988, a Harris poll showed only 30% of Americans supported the use of nuclear energy. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, support rose to 62%.

Due to environmental concerns for other forms of energy, the Obama administration has shown interest in increasing the use of nuclear power.

Local organizations like TVA and ALSTOM Power have invested money into expanding nuclear energy.