Nightly News   |  March 30, 2011

EPA admits to glitches in radiation monitors

As the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan focuses new attention on the way the U.S. monitors radiation, problems regarding the monitoring system have since been exposed. NBC's George Lewis reports.

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>>> we have more tonight on that disaster in japan . a lot of developments to report, in fact. a government official out and out said there is no end in sight to this disaster. radiation levels in nearby sea water spiked again to more than 3,000 times the normal level. the president of the company that owns the plant now awe total write-off is in the hospital currently with high blood pressure . and today japan 's emperor and empress made a rare public appearance trying to comfort those who lost all their worldly possessions in the earthquake and tsunami.

>>> fresh reports from the epa and others in this country show traces of radiation from that japanese plant have migrated across the pacific ocean , have now reached a total of 14 states here that we know of, including florida and new york. again, officials say these are trace amounts, minute amounts, no danger to people, but it is here and in the air. these reports only add to concerns over nuclear plant and overall radiation safety here at home. and the systems the u.s. has in place to monitor radiation in the air, the water, even the food and milk supply. as nbc's george lewis reports, there are some glitches in those systems.

>> reporter: the japanese nuclear disaster has this epa lab in alabama on high alert, monitoring the air, the water and samples of milk for any signs of radiation.

>> 24 hours a day , seven days a week, we're monitoring the air across the united states .

>> reporter: and so far so good. none of the 124 air monitors in the network has picked up any sign of harmful radiation. but, the epa has conceded it's had problems with some of those monitors. on the west coast , only half of them were fully functioning as the fukushima plant in japan began emitting radiation. three monitors were out of service and others had to be double checked for potentially faulty data. and while the epa claims this is no big deal , anti-nuclear activists disagree.

>> an emergency radiation system should be working, and it is very problematic, an epa system is largely non-functional during this period.

>> reporter: then there's the question of what happens if there's a disaster at a u.s. nuclear plant . two in california, diablo canyon and san onofre are built near earthquake faults. many of these commuters along interstate 5 are more than the seven and a half californians living close to the san onofre plant. because of that, radiation monitoring that needs to be properly running at all times. the company operating san onofre claims it's safe.

>> i think it's important for the public to understand that this plant did its homework on the risks and then overbuilt.

>> this is too loose.

>> reporter: still some residents of nearby san clemente say they're frightened.

>> they don't realize just how scared the community can get, especially after a crisis like japan .

>> reporter: this, as questions are raised about whether it could happen here, and whether warning systems will work if it does. george lewis , nbc news, san onofre , california.