Journalism in the Public Interest

Congressman: U.S. May Not Be Prepared to Respond to Nuclear Disaster

As Japan struggles to contain its growing nuclear crisis, a congressman and a disaster-preparedness expert raised concerns that the United States is not prepared to respond to a nuclear disaster.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., wrote a letter to President Obama on March 13 saying that the federal government lacks a coordinated plan for responding to a major nuclear incident. Markey wrote that key agencies tasked with emergency response in the event of a nuclear disaster are unclear about what their roles would be and even about which agency would be in charge.

"It appears that no agency sees itself as clearly in command of emergency response in a nuclear disaster," Markey wrote.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, echoed Markey's assessment, saying current disaster-response plans are confusing and leave too much uncertainty.

"It's definitely not as clear as it needs to be," Redlener said. "Part of the problem is a tremendous overlap on the federal, state and local levels."

The White House says that the lead agency in responding to a potential nuclear disaster depends upon the source and the nature of the nuclear release. It says federal disaster-response plans clearly establish which agency would be in charge under different scenarios. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would lead the response to a release from a nuclear power plant, the Department of Energy would coordinate response to a crisis involving nuclear weapons in its custody, and the Department of Homeland Security would lead the response to a deliberate attack.

"Given the range of potential causes, from an earthquake to a terrorist attack, the plan provides the flexibility and agility we need to respond aggressively and effectively," said White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro in a statement.

The contingency plan cited by the White House includes six different agencies that could potentially be in charge of nuclear emergency response. A table that details which agency takes the lead has 15 different scenarios, eight of which include more than one possibility for which agency would coordinate the response.

Columbia's Redlener said that this setup is problematic: It would result in "people trying to make ad hoc decisions in the midst of a crisis." Redlener said that officials in these circumstances might hesitate to make decisions because of uncertainty about their legal authority to act.

In his letter to Obama, Markey wrote that officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and EPA who briefed his staff were confused about their roles and about which agencies should be taking the lead.

"One Agency official essentially told my staff that if a nuclear incident occurred, they would all get on the phone really quickly and figure it out," Markey wrote.

The White House said that state and local officials, as well as nuclear facilities, all had detailed response plans in place. Shapiro, the White House spokesman, said that there is "a robust and active nuclear power plant accident exercise program" that involves authorities at different levels of government, and that such an exercise was conducted last year.

But Redlener said that the country was not prepared for critical elements of responding to a nuclear disaster, including mass evacuations, addressing the needs of vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and the disabled, and distribution of potassium iodine in areas where it is not stockpiled. (See our story questioning how much protection iodine pills could offer.)

"If you look back at what happened in the Gulf after Katrina, I think that's a pretty good demonstration of the capacity we have," Redlener said. "We need to do a much better job in terms of imagining and planning for large events."

Linda Woodward

March 16, 2011, 3:51 p.m.

It does seem odd that we started up this Homeland Security boondoggle to pull together all of these emergent fiascos under one umbrella. Yet here we are operating with numerous agencies shooting one another in the foot and no one actually “in charge” of gathering, organizing and disseminating the information.

Wasn’t that the purpose of Homeland Security?

Under the U.S. response plan who would take charge in a Fukushima-like event? The Earthquake, Tsunami, or ?.  The Japanese, a rather orderly society, are saying that the evacuation around Fukushima lacks communication, and imformation is not reaching the public even as they are being shuffled farther and farther from thier homes. Even civic leaders are saying that there is a problem. With the secrecy that exists here (or maybe it’s just silence in media) about how the nuclear plants are being managed and mismanaged, a simalar situation would likely unfold for us.


As soon as I saw the word “congressman” in the headline, I just knew it had to be that jackass Ed Markey.

Who is prepared for a disaster of “biblical"proportions? We wern’t for Katrina,We wern’t for Andrew and we wern’t for a possible nuclear war when I was a kid. The bottom line with energy is CONSUMPTION and in the USA we don’t know how to conserve. Who controls the light switch,the thermostat and the speed when we drive? The last time Americans conserved was during WW2 and since then it has been consume, consume, consume. Wake up people,the power is in your hands! (No pun intended).

Dougals Burnett

March 17, 2011, 4:21 a.m.

HUH, Which way do we go????? Idiots being led by idiots.

Like the BP disaster, the unanticipated happened. 

And once again we’re in unchartered waters, making it up as we go, seat-of-the-pants, on a wing and a prayer.

We now find out Diablo Canyon is on two faults, within millions, and within range of what is essentially the food supply for the nation.

The Germans, who are beating us on every front economically, are going out of the nuclear business.  We, with a government controlled by big money interests, double down with our tax dollars despite the opposition of the majority of Americans.

Remember that, like terrorism, we’re only at best as good as the last demonstrated threat.  Hijack a plane?  OK, install heavy doors to the cockpit.  Lighting a shoe?  OK, take your shoes off for inspection.  Stuff a device in your skivvies?  OK, we’ll virtually strip search and grope your teenage daughters.  Earthquake?  OK, we’ll “review” ourr readiness for earthquakes.   

Obviously, that’s simply not good enough.  We are wholly reactionary and rearview mirror gazing, and what’s going to do us in are the things we didn’t anticipate. 

Moreover, our corporate controlled government lacks the will to force operators to make investments to safeguard against scenarios they’d call “flights of imagination” when there’s a profit to be made.

Further investment in this poison under these circumstances are insane, I don’t care how badly we need the power.


The difference between Fukushima and Deepwater Horizon is that the nuclear plant designers built and tested their containment systems BEFORE the accident. They also are not winging it, I can testify to many, many hours of both learning and writing emergency procedures that attempt to provide guidance, even when the unexpected happens.

Believe it or not, people who operate complex, but important machinery for a living understand better than anyone that “stuff” happens. We work very hard when stuff is not happening to prepare ourselves to be able to respond and adapt when it does.

As Clint Eastwood said in Hamburger Hill “Improvise, adapt, overcome.” Plant operators are not exactly US Marines, but they share the common bond of people who do things for a living. That is a bond that is often completely misunderstood by people who push paper or talk for a living.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
PS - I write for a hobby; I do stuff for a living that involves learning how to deal with complexity.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Nuclear Safety

Nuclear Safety

With the disaster in Japan, we're investigating questions about nuclear safety.

The Story So Far

Following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hydrogen explosions rocked three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Radioactive spent fuel stored in pools was also affected, especially at one reactor—the plant has a total of six—where multiple fires erupted. Evacuation orders were issued, potassium iodine tablets distributed, and plant employees used seawater and external electrical power to cool the stricken reactors, three of which had a partial core meltdown.

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