TOKYO, Japan – Combination photo shows the protective suits (L) being worn by Tokyo firefighters spraying water on reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which has been crippled since a massive quake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The firefighting suit (R) is worn on top of the hazmat suit. (Kyodo)

Japan’s earthquake and tsunami forced a re-evaluation of nuclear power plant protection. Now, a veteran firefighter examines the state of American preparedness and looks at what needs to be done next.

by Robert Lewin / / June 27, 2012 /

During a long career in the fire service with a nuclear power plant in my jurisdiction, I attended many required training drills, participated in evaluated exercises, and even responded to several fires at the plant. Even though I toured the facility and conducted fire safety inspections on the non-nuclear parts of the plant, never in my 30-plus year career did I consider that my firefighters might be called upon to stop a reactor meltdown by applying water.

Never until March 11, 2011, a date now known in Japan as 3/11, had I considered the need to go inside a reactor’s containment dome or the need to look down at the spent fuel pools. It was deemed unnecessary. As I watched the situation in Fukushima, Japan, unfold, first seeing helicopters dropping water on a nuclear power plant, using the same techniques our wildland firefighters use, then firefighters on the ground applying water, did I realize that I had to face the possibility, albeit remote, of overseeing a response to a similar disaster.

As I watched videos of brave firefighters responding to the ailing plant, connecting hoses to systems applying water to the melting uranium and plutonium mixed-oxide fuel, I wondered, “Could this happen in the US? Could our firefighters be charged with responding as our brothers in Japan did?” I needed to see the reactor; I needed to see the spent fuel pools. I needed to ready my people.

I began to prepare.


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