March 13, 2011— -- As experts in Japan race to stave off an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the U.S. nuclear industry says a similar emergency is unlikely to happen in this country.
Even though 23 of the 104 nuclear reactors are of the same General Electric design as the Fukushima reactors causing the crisis in Japan, a nuclear industry spokesman said there are guidelines in the United States that would decrease the likelihood of such a disaster here.
"We think we're pretty well equipped," said Tony Pietrangelo, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group.
"We do plan for blackouts, earthquakes, and tsunamis," he said. "Clearly what happened in Japan is well beyond what they were designed for. It's highly unlikely but we have a station blackout rule to deal specifically with what happened in Japan. We think we're pretty well equipped."
The 23 General Electric-designed reactors are more than 40 years old and are spread throughout the U.S., in cities such as Toms River, N.J.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Vernon, Vt. To generate electrical power, these nuclear reactors use a boiling water system, known as a boiling water reactor.
These reactors continue to produce heat even after fission reactions have stopped. Normally, water pumps are used to cool them down, but the pumps are powered by electricity.
Following the tsunami caused by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck Japan on Friday, the widespread loss of electricity meant emergency crews had to truck in sea water to cool the reactors.
At the Fukushima plants, 175 miles north of Tokyo, experts told ABC News today that it appears evident that there has already been some damage at the core of one or more reactors.
And if the reactors don't cool down soon, the world could experience another disaster on the scale of the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
"We're at tipping point," said Joe Cirincione, a nuclear security expert. "In next 48 hours we will either see the reactors start to cool down, or these last ditch efforts will fail and reactor will spin out of control and we will see melt down at one or more (reactor). Totally unprecedented."