Senators Durbin, Kirk and Rep. Walsh, Show Leadership on Homeland Security Issues
By ELLEN CANNON
Illinois Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk(R-IL) will host a forum to discuss the safety of Illinois nuclear reactors on Friday, March 25, 2011 at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago. The focus, in light of the Japanese nuclear disaster, is whether Illinois, a state with the largest number of reactors in the U.S., is prepared for a major nuclear emergency. Congressman Joe Walsh (R-Il), a freshman member of the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications is currently helping to assess and review nationwide disaster plans should a biological or chemical catastrophe occur in any state. This subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Florida) represents growing a bi-partisan concern with how the U.S. would handle a catastrophe similar to one being experienced at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.(Ellen Cannon, “Governor Quinn Names Director To Illinois Emergency Management Agency, hornface.com, March 7th, 2011)
According to Durbin, “there is no reason to believe there is a particular concern here but the still-unfolding crisis in Japan is fair warning that we ought to periodically review this. “(Tammy Webber, Durbin, Kirk to host forum on Ill. Nuclear safety”,content.usatoday. net/dist/custom/gci/Insidepage.aspx?cId=, March 23, 2011)
Senator Kirk said “there is not a cause for alarm, but just the same, safety must be maintained. …It is important to realize the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan are all very close to the epicenter of the earthquake…I don’t think we need to have a knee-jerk reaction, because energy independence for the U.S. is critical…I do think a common sense view is to look at locations of nuclear power plants along fault lines.”(CBS Chicago News, “After Japan Disaster, Senators Focus on Illinois Nuke Plant Safety,Chicago,cbslocal.com/2011/03/15/Japanese –nuclear meltdo…)
Nuclear watchdog experts Dave Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, and Howard Lerner, head of the Illinois Environmental policy Center, share a far more cautionary and critical view.
Lerner has a concern “about plans by Exelon the owner of the plants, to “uprate or rev up the amount of electricity generated by the Mark I reactors, all of which are more than 40 years old.” Similarly, Kraft strongly suggests there is something to worry about. “The Mark I boiling-water reactors are flawed because spent fuel rods are stored above the reactor containment chamber instead of at the ground level, and the containment system around the reactor is too small and could allow pressure to build quickly in the event of an emergency.”(content.usatoday.net/distcustom/gci/Insidepage.aspx?cLd=)
The Department of Homeland Security will be holding a national earthquake drill centering on the New Madrid fault lines in May, 2011. This fault line running across five states, is a concern to residents of Illinois as it, includes southern Illinois near Cairo; is not far from the nuclear power plant in Clinton Illinois, which is 250 miles from the New Madrid fault; and creates a concern for the Wabash Valley seismic zone which, runs along the southern Illinois and Indiana border.
Exelon chairman, John Rowe, is confident that the Exelon run power plants are built to withstand earthquakes and underscores the fact that the damage to the nuclear plants in Japan came not from the earthquakes alone, but from the tsunami, which will not occur in Illinois.
Congressional hearings and recent public opinion polls suggest that community forums cannot be symbolic chit-chat or merely efforts to reassure a highly concerned public.
The New York Times of March 23, 2011, reports on a new CBS poll which suggests, that the public is losing faith in nuclear power.” The CBS poll suggests eroding support for nuclear energy power plants in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, with support for building power plants dropping slightly lower than it was immediately after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. “While 7 in 10 Americans think the nuclear power plants in the US are generally safe, two-thirds said they were concerned that a nuclear accident might occur in this country-including 3 in 10 who said they were “very concerned”
The CBS poll reveals a growing confidence gap as to whether those polled believe the federal government was prepared to adequately deal with a major nuclear accident. Fifty-eight percent of those polled do not think the federal government is prepared to handle a major nuclear event.( Michael Cooper and Dalia Sussman.”Poll Shows Public Is Losing Faith in Nuclear Power,” New York Times, March 25, 2011, p. A15)
Chicago’s Mike Parker of CBS 2, asked residents of Will County Illinois, who live near the Braidwood power plant if they feared something, could happen to their community. “Joe Van Duine answered,”That’s always a possibility. If it happens it happens, you know. There is not much we can really do about it, but move.” Jerry Keiely of Braidwood stated, “Actually I think it’s a little bit dangerous. I really do.(CBS Chicago News, “Japanese Nuclear Meltdown: Could It happen Here? Chicago.cbslocal.com/2011/03/11/Japanese –nuke-meltdown…)
Based on the hearings held by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, On March 17th and 18th, 2011, citizen concern is justified.(Ellen Cannon, “Napolitano Over-Hypes Level of U.S. Preparedness Drills, hornface.com, March 17, 2011)
Preparedness concerns for a catastrophe of any kind, and a nuclear plant catastrophe in particular, continue to be major priorities for members of both the Senate and House members working on correcting the implementation of homeland security policies. Federal response plans to catastrophes and disasters are intricately related to how well effective state and local officials can respond should there be a catastrophic incident.
Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Senator Joseph Lieberman (ID-CONN.) and ranking member, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) spearheaded the hearing on “Catastrophic Preparedness: How Ready Is FEMA for the Next Big Disaster?”
Senator Collins stated in her opening remarks, “We don’t know when or where the next disaster will hit. But we do know that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there is a 94% likelihood that an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or greater will occur in California within the next 30 years.” While recognizing that FEMA has made progress in preparedness for a catastrophic event since the committee’s last report in 2007, she strongly noted “questions remain about our ability as a nation to handle a mega disaster.”(Senator Susan Collins, “Ensuring that FEMA Is prepared to respond to Disaster”, hsgac.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Press.Min…)
Her views were shared by Chairman Lieberman, as well as Richard Skinner, Former Inspector General of the DHS and William o. Jenkins, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the Government Accountability Office, (GAO). (Opening Statement of Chairman Joseph Lieberman, March 17, 2011; Statement of Rich L. Skinner, Former Inspector General, US Department of Homeland Security, Before The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Us Senate, March 17, 2011; Statement of William O. Jenkins, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the GAO, Testimony Before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, US Senate, “Measuring Disaster Preparedness: FEMA Has MADE LIMITED PROGRESS In ASSESSING NATIONAL CAPABILITIES, March 17, 2011)
Rep. Markey, (D-Massachusetts) who has served on House Committees that have oversight over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the nuclear power industry, recently called for several specifi
c policies that the Obama administration and the NRC need to consider putting in place in light of the Japanese nuclear reactor crisis.
In a letter to President Obama, March 13, 2011 (Ellen Cannon, “Napolitano Over-Hypes Level of U.S. Preparedness drills, hornface.com, March 17, 2011) Markey expresses dismay and frustration at federal agencies not having a coordinated plan for dealing with a nuclear disaster. Markey describes his first-hand experience stemming from agency and departmental confusion regarding potential nuclear disasters: “I wrote Obama to explain that officials from the nuclear regulatory Commission who briefed my staff were confused about their roles and about which agencies should be taking the lead.”…In terms of the absence of inter-departmental and inter-agency cohesion, clarity, and integration during a nuclear incident, Markey noted the following concerns could cause serious health problems, a potential loss of life, as well as cost and personnel inefficiencies.
Rep. Markey goes on to state ,”I am concerned that it appears that no agency sees itself clearly in command of emergency response in a nuclear disaster…In sharp contrast to the scenarios for oil spills and hurricanes, there is no specificity for emergency coordination and command in place for a response to a nuclear disaster.”
Representative Markey called for several specific polices for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider. These suggestions are important pro-active concerns and programmatic suggestions that might be discussed at the upcoming Durbin-Kirk forum on: (1) a comprehensive review of whether backup power and reactor coolant systems are adequate to deal with long power outages associated with earthquakes and acts of terrorism that can impact a nuclear plant; (2)require operating reactors located in seismically active zones to be retrofitted with stronger containment and more resilient safety systems; (3) call for moratorium on nuclear reactors in seismically active areas to assess reactor design resiliency and response capabilities of the state and locality, and evacuation plans (4) develop a full examination of the costs and payment opportunities for cleanup should there be a nuclear incident; (5) the distribution of potassium iodide pills to residents living within a 20 mile radius of a nuclear reactor.(Markey, 13, 2011: Markey Warns that Japan Nuclear Accident could Happen Here,markey.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=v)
Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a California nuclear policy organization offers a critique of the standards the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put in place during the Bush administration regarding protecting citizens should there be a radiation leak at a nuclear reactor. The DHS, according to Hirsch, issued “protective action guides” (PAG’s) regarding a radiation leak from a nuclear power plant that creates additional health risks. For example, asserts Hirsch, “The PAG’s suggest the federal government would not take action to provide alternative drinking water for affected communities until local drinking water reached unacceptably high levels of contamination.” (Mickey McCarter, “Japanese Nuclear Disaster Raises Questions of US Preparedness, “Homeland Security Today, March 16, 2011)
In addition to the upcoming Durbin-Kirk nuclear power plant, freshman Congressman Joe Walsh (R-IL 8th district) has been appointed to the House Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Rep Peter King (R-NY).
Rep. Walsh is a member of several subcommittees including the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, chaired by Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Florida)
Similar to his colleagues in the Senate Rep. Bilirakis is concerned with the extent to which the US can handle the kind of catastrophe heaped on Japan. His concerns are expressed in the current hearings he chairs in the House on, “Ensuring Effective Preparedness, Response, and Recovery for Events Impacting Health Security”. The specific focus of the hearings is the nation’s capacity to respond to a chemical or biological attack and to specifically examine the effectiveness of Program BioWatch .
Program BioWatch is an air monitoring sensor system which was introduced in 2003 to detect intentional release of biological agent in a major metropolitan area. According to Nancy Bush, writer of “BIOWATCH: CASE FOR CHANGE OF TRADITIONAL LEADERSHIP TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE”, since its inception, this potentially critically important program suffers from little guidance, bureaucratic fragmentation, and little direction as to how to coordinate with state and local officials.(2009, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California).
Committee hearings based on expert assessment of the program hopefully will potentially work to increase the preparedness capacity of this program which can increase our response, recovery, and resiliency to any and all threats we might face in Illinois.
Not since the events of 9/11 and Katrina has the attention of Americans been more jolted regarding issues of preparedness to natural disasters and terrorist threats. The Durbin-Kirk forum on March 25 and the work of Illinois Congressman Walsh regarding preparedness for biological and chemical attacks offer an opportunity both for citizen engagement and citizen oversight.