After spending much of his career examining the vulnerability of nuclear powerplants to earthquakes, Greg Hardy, a senior principal at Los Angeles-based Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., is comfortable living between two facilities along California’s coast— even after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. But Hardy says that he can understand how other people—including his wife—might not be as comfortable after seeing images of the crippled and ominous nuclear units.

“They just think it could happen anywhere,” he says. “It’s going to be a difficult job to convey that and convince people” that the U.S. plants are safe. “It will be a challenge for the industry. How can they communicate that high level of safety here, and assure the public that it could not conceivably happen here?”

Politicians, financiers and the public are demanding that nuclear construction and operation companies, as well as regulators, prove that their plants are safe. China and the U.S. have both agreed to safety reviews of all existing plants, while Germany has temporarily shut down its older plants. Whether the reviews result in any changes to the current or proposed plants worldwide, some observers predict changes in rate of progress for new nuclear powerplants in years to come.

“While major [utility] customers like SCANA and Southern in the U.S. have come out publicly defending new builds moving forward, we suspect that’s a knee-jerk reaction,” says Jamie L. Cook, a Credit Suisse industry analyst, in a recent report. “We believe projects will ultimately move forward, but suspect at a slower rate given potential political and public backlash. Furthermore, this provides an opportunity for ‘more questionable’ new builds like South Texas, in our opinion, to gracefully bow out.” But Cook says the stock price of Utah-based nuclear waste cleanup firm EnergySolutions “came roaring back after taking it on the chin as investors question whether this speeds up the decommissioning of existing nuclear power plants globally.”

Progress at Fukushima

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported March 22 that power had been restored to one of the three units under duress, although there were also reports of white smoke. IAEA also says the Japanese are spraying water over the spent fuel pools at the plant that caught fire and released radiation into the atmosphere. Firefighters continue to inject seawater into the reactor pressure vessels of the three units to keep fuel rods cool.

“We are seeing some steady improvements, but the overall situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powerplant remains very serious,” Graham Andrew, an IAEA special adviser, told a press briefing on March 21.

The U.S. Energy Dept.’s National Nuclear Security Administration says it has dispatched a 39-person team from the two agencies and from its contractor, National Security Technologies LLC, to Japan to conduct radiological testing. The firm, which manages the former Nevada Test Site, is a joint venture of Northrop Grumman, AECOM, CH2M Hill and Nuclear Fuel Services.

“The data would show ground level and air dispersion contamination levels, and would confirm or dispute conflicting information,” says Leo P. Duffy, a nuclear waste consultant and former assistant energy secretary for environmental restoration and waste management. He also says that as many as 70 U.S.-based engineers working for G.E and Hitachi with knowledge of the plant have not yet been dispatched, and that backup G.E. generators “have not been shipped.”

Baton Rouge, La.-based The Shaw Group said on March 22 that it will assist Toshiba Corp. with mitigation and remediation at the plant. A team of Shaw experts has mobilized to provide services in Japan, and will provide engineering, analysis, assessment and design from the U.S., the firm said.

As the situation in Japan settles, the U.S. has turned attention to its own nuclear plants. At first the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that the nation’s 104 operating plants were safe, but at a March 21 briefing, the agency outlined plans for a “systematic and methodical” evaluation of the Japanese crisis and whether lessons learned there will require regulatory or design changes in the U.S.

NRC will conduct a 90-day review of U.S. powerplants with little industry input before deciding whether more regulatory action is needed, said Bill Borchardt, NRC executive director for operations.

After the first 30 days, the agency expects to issue a “snapshot” assessment of the regulatory response to the Japanese crisis and the condition of the U.S. fleet. A more detailed report will follow at the end of the investigation, Borchardt said. Then, NRC’s long-term evaluation will include input from other federal agencies and industry. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko stressed that the review should be “systematic and methodical” so that “we approach these issues and really get the facts to make sure we don’t move in a direction that is based on early information, which often tends to be confusing and often conflicting.”

Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear power watchdog group, have called on lawmakers to keep the NRC’s feet to the fire. Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the group’s UCS’s Global Security program, said in congressional testimony on March 16 that after the 1979 Three-Mile Island accident, the NRC overhauled its rules to correct regulatory weaknesses. But after the Chernobyl accident seven years later, the NRC failed to take significant action because it said such an accident could not happen in the U.S., he says.

According to Lyman, NRC can’t make that claim now because the U.S. has 23 plants with the same design as Fukushima and several are “just as old” as the plants in Japan. A UCS report released March 17 identified 14 nuclear “near misses” that took place in 2010 alone. At the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland, the group says an electrical device that had outlived its usable lifetime failed and “disabled critical safety components.” Another occurred in 2009 at Diablo Canyon in California when plant operators found during a test that they could not open valves that provide emergency cooling water to the reactor core and containment vessel.

Lawmakers at two March 16 hearings queried Jaczko about the condition of U.S. nuclear plants and the nation’s preparedness for a similar disaster. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked how many facilities lie directly along fault lines and sought immediate inspections of Diablo Canyon and another California facility, San Onofre, both near earthquake faults.

Diablo and San Onofre are up for NRC relicensing as is New York’s Indian Point Energy Center. The Buchanan, N.Y., plant is 34 miles north of New York City and within a mile of the Ramapo fault line. On March 19, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that state officials would meet with senior NRC officials to discuss the powerplant.

“The purpose of the meeting will be to discuss risks facing Indian Point in the event of an earthquake, how prepared [it] is to handle an earthquake, as well as what risk assessments have been completed,” he said. As state attorney general, Cuomo advocated against Indian Point relicensing. The operating licenses for Unit 2 and Unit 3 expire in September 2013 and December 2015, respectively. Those plants were originally commissioned in 1974 and 1976.

Entergy, which owns the plant, said in a March 16 statement that “Indian Point is neither susceptible to the type of earthquake that occurred in Japan, nor the tsunami that followed. Nevertheless, over the next 30 days, as part of an industry initiative, Indian Point will be performing a comprehensive review of the plant’s ability to respond to catastrophic events.”

Entergy is also under scrutiny over another plant, Vermont Yankee, which was relicensed for 20 years by the NRC one day before the Japanese earthquake. But the Vermont legislature, ...