Video: Could a nuclear meltdown happen in U.S.?

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    >> safe are our nuclear plants ? nbc's lisa myers looked into the question. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning. nuclear regulators say u.s. nuclear power plants are built to with stand significant earthquakes and tsunamis and that current safeguards are adequate to protect the public. but the japanese officials would have said the seem thing a week ago. some scientists warn what's happening in japan could happen here. this was not supposed to happen. a number of japanese reactors out of control, the threat of a nuclearle me meltdown. in the u.s. there are 104 nuclear power plants which provide 20% of electricity here. edward limon says this shows safety standards should be raised across the board. could what happened in japan happen here?

    >> yes. i'm afraid it could. unless we learn the lessons of this accident it's only a matter of time.

    >> reporter: issue one, earthquakes. some nuclear plants are located in or near areas of seismic risk. the greatest hazards, the areas in red. u.s. nuclear plants are required to be able to with stand the worst earthquake expected in their area. plus a margin of safety. two california plants are in earthquake-prone areas, diablo canyon built to with stand a 7.5 magnitude quake and, designed to with stand a 7.0, san onofre . japan 's was a 9.0. richard lester of m.i.t.

    >> we need to consider the possibility of greater magnitude earthquakes than we had previously considered.

    >> reporter: issue two, plant design. this is a design of the reactor in japan ?

    >> that's correct.

    >> reporter: there are 31 plants in the u.s. similar to those in trouble in japan , designed by general electric which is a part owner of nbc universal . one, oyster creek in new jersey, is the oldest nuclear plant in the country, about 50 miles from new york city . issue three, backup power systems. experts say the japanese reactors basically got into trouble because they lost electricity and backup power systems failed, too, leaving them struggling to cool the reactor core . marvin fertell of the energy institute says thanks to improvements since 9/11, u.s. plants have more ability to cope if power is lost.

    >> we would be able to handle the situation much easier than the japanese are facing now.

    >> reporter: could what happened in japan happen here?

    >> could we have an event that -- we think -- i would say it's highly improbable it could happen here. if it did, i think we would handle it quite well here.

    >> reporter: democratic congressman ed markey called for a moratorium on building new reactors in earthquake-prone areas of this country until a sweeping safety review is conducted of exactly what went wrong in japan .

    >> lisa myers for us in washington, thank you very much. it's 34 after the hour. staff and news service reports
updated 4/8/2011 5:47:06 AM ET 2011-04-08T09:47:06

A small amount of hydrogen gas ignited in a six-inch flame at a Washington nuclear power plant Thursday when workers cut into a pipe, a spokesman said.

Columbia Generating Station declared an "unusual event," evacuated plant areas near the pipe for about 90 minutes, and notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

No one was injured in the one second-long "puff" of gas that had been trapped in the pipe in the plant's non-nuclear turbine building, Energy Northwest spokesman Mike Paoli said.

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Paoli said there was "no association whatsoever with the reactor building or radiation."

Workers had shut the reactor down on Saturday to begin the process of changing out the fuel rods, KIRO-TV reported. The bi-annual process takes about 30 to 45 days to complete, the station said.

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The pipe that released the gas is typically filled with water and hydrogen, which are used to cool the generator, The Olympian reported. Paoli told the newspaper the pipe had been closed and cleaned out — "or so they thought" — at the time of the incident.

An "unusual event" describes a condition that could potentially compromise normal safety levels, the least serious of four NRC emergency classifications.

The Associated Press and staff contributed to this report.


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