Two Years After Japan's Nuclear Disaster, Some in Congress Are Still Concerned

Crippled Unit 4 reactor building of Tokyo Electric Power Co., Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is seen in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. Japan next month marks one year since the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, which triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

More than two years after the tsunami-caused meltdown at Japan's Fukushima nuclear-power plant, the effects of the disaster are ongoing and far-reaching.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking heat for downplaying the crisis to the International Olympic Committee, which recently awarded Tokyo the 2020 Olympic Games. At least one report says a diluted but still-radioactive plume from the plant could hit the West Coast of the United States next year. And South Korea may appeal to international courts as the leaks threaten marine life in its seas.

So why isn't Fukushima getting much attention on Capitol Hill? While Syria, the budget, and — as always — Obamacare dominate the agenda, at least two House members think Fukushima should be part of the discussion as well. House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., ranking member on the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee, are calling for new hearings to investigate the crisis.

The pair wrote last week to Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., urging the committee to return its focus to the disaster.

When asked about the request, committee spokeswoman Charlotte Baker said the panel is planning an oversight hearing on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this fall and that Fukushima issues could be addressed then.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has no hearing on Fukushima currently on its agenda.

Last week, at a hearing on the stalled nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Waxman quizzed NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane on whether the Japanese plant's leaks could endanger West Coast residents. Macfarlane said the threat was minimal because radiation will be diluted by the Pacific Ocean before it reaches the United States.

Some environmentalists aren't so sure. "[Waxman] had it just right," said Geoffrey Fettus, a senior project attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The lessons learned from this ongoing nuclear disaster should get attention from Congress as well as the agencies."

While the disaster's local impact is of concern, its implications for U.S. energy policy have not been adequately addressed, Fettus said: "The NRC's response has been slow and grudging."

Following the disaster and an NRC review, the agency issued three orders, including rules aimed at improving nuclear plants' ability to cope with power losses, requirements for better venting, and instruments to track water levels in spent-fuel pools. Some in Congress think the venting systems should be required to include filters.

Meanwhile, signs indicate that Japan is still struggling with problems from the meltdown. An American filmmaker said last week he has documented low white-blood-cell counts and increased nosebleeds and rashes in residents near the disaster area. The Japanese press is speculating that an increase in problems could result in the country losing the Olympics -- though International Olympic Committee media relations manager Andrew Mitchell said the IOC has "full confidence in the Japanese government regarding the situation in Fukushima." To make matters worse, a typhoon hit Japan on Monday, forcing the Fukushima's operator to release radioactive rainwater into the ocean.

"The scale of the cleanup is extraordinary," Fettus said. "There's an enormous amount we can learn about what to do in the event of a serious accident in this country."