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March 16, 2011

Oklahoma likely safe from effects of nuclear disaster

STILLWATER, Okla. — In the unlikely event a meltdown similar to the one at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant were to occur in the United States, Oklahoma would likely feel little effect from it, an Oklahoma State University-Tulsa professor said Tuesday.

Raman Singh, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at OSU-Tulsa, said such a disaster is unlikely in the United States because of strict safety regulations.

Following a massive earthquake and tsunami last week, the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant has sustained damage from fire and explosions. The plant emitted a burst of radiation Tuesday, panicking an already edgy Japan and leaving the government struggling to contain a spiraling crisis caused by last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

The majority of the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States are on the East Coast, Singh said. Because the area is less seismically active, the East Coast is at a much lower risk for tsunamis than Japan, he said.

If an American reactor did sustain damage as the result of an earthquake or tsunami, Singh said it would be able to weather the damage better than the reactor in Japan. After the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania, regulations on nuclear power in the United States became much tighter. Since then, American nuclear reactors have become more structurally stable, he said.

“They’re actually better designed for earthquakes and tsunamis,” Singh said.

Such safety standards and regulations may become more important in the future, Singh said, because nuclear power is likely to begin to make up a larger part of overall energy production in the United States. Today, nuclear power represents about 20 percent of overall energy production, Singh said, but as the country begins to move away from fossil fuels, nuclear power will begin to play a bigger role in the economy.

Although Oklahoma has no nuclear power plants, the Arkansas Nuclear One reactor, located in Russellville, Ark., could be close enough to the Oklahoma border to affect cities in the state. However, Singh said, the disaster would have to be catastrophic — along the order of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Such a catastrophe is unlikely, he said, because Western designs for nuclear plants are safer than the one used in the former Soviet Union. Even in the case of a massive catastrophe at Arkansas Nuclear One, he said, any potential effects in Oklahoma would depend on a number of factors, including wind direction.

If such a catastrophic meltdown did occur, Singh said, damage could be mitigated by effective response. The Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is a good model for how to contain such a situation, he said: officials evacuated the affected area, worked to keep reactors cool and monitored the situation.

If such a crisis occurred, Singh said, responders would also likely pass out iodine tablets to those in the affected area. When a nuclear meltdown occurs, it distributes a radioactive iodine isotope through the air, he said. The isotope causes health risks if it is absorbed by the thyroid gland, he said. Iodine tablets would saturate the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine, preventing the body from absorbing the radioactive form, he said.

As unlikely as a nuclear meltdown in the United States might be, Singh said it isn’t impossible. Anything involving engineering involves a certain amount of risk, he said. The key, he said, is to mitigate the risks as much as possible through inspections and safety standards.

“There’s never zero probability of something like that happening,” he said. “But I would say the chance is very small.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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