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GA WAND in the AJC– ‘Nuke safety back in spotlight’

By Kristi E. Swartz

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

John Spink, jspink@ajc.com

The recent meltdown of a tsunami-damaged plant in Japan has renewed concerns about the safety of U.S. nuclear reactors, including two new ones planned for Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle.

A group of anti-nuclear power protesters decided to use a Public Service Commission hearing on potential cost overruns to bring attention to their concerns about two proposed reactors for Plant Vogtle.

The talk inside the meeting room Wednesday was about Georgia Power’s profits and utility regulation. The conversation outside was about nuclear safety.

“Stop and consider the health and safety risks of disasters,” said Courtney Hanson, public outreach coordinator at Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions.

Georgia Power is part of a partnership trying to build the two nuclear reactors, which would be the nation’s first in 30 years. Federal and state regulators are watching closely over the project’s schedule and budget.

No major construction has started; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has delayed issuing a permit so reactor manufacturer Westinghouse can continue to review the design of the reactor being used.

For some, the extra caution is welcomed. For others, it fuels skepticism about nuclear power.

“It seems we go from new requirement to new doubt to new requirement to new doubt,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

“Fukushima was a worldwide wave of ‘I told you so’s,’” Herring said, referring to the meltdown in Japan.

Japan aside, incidents at nuclear reactors across the U.S. continue to put nuclear safety in the spotlight. Floodwaters surround the Fort Calhoun nuclear power station near Omaha, Neb. A cooling pump failure temporarily shutters a reactor in south New Jersey. Severe storms cut power to a nuclear plant in Alabama.

Then there are increased reports of tritium leaking from spent fuel rods at various plants, plus concerns among some that terrorists might seize such rods from the pools of water where they are stored.

At least three government groups are reviewing the safety of the nation’s nuclear reactors. The Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Energy is scheduled to present a draft report on managing used nuclear fuel and waste to President Barack Obama later this month.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission created a task force and will issue recommendations on immediate changes at U.S. nuclear reactors on July 19.

Severe weather incidents, such as the tornadoes that hit the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama and the Surry Power Station in Virginia, prompted Congress to ask the Government Accountability Office to review how U.S. reactors are protected against forces of nature, including earthquakes and tornadoes.

“These are likely going to be the big policy catalysts for what changes may be on the horizon for existing and new reactors,” said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Professor Cham Dallas, head of the University of Georgia’s Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense, has been to Japan twice since the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant accident. He said what happened there amounts to short-sightedness in planning.

“They planned for a 25-foot tsunami, and they got a 30-foot tsunami. That’s fairly common; people plan for disasters they can handle,” he said.

The flooding in Omaha that surrounded the Fort Calhoun plant was something that officials could plan for by building backup diesel generators high above flood waters, he said.

“They know they’re in a flood plain. They know how fast the waters will rise.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama was down for days after severe storms and tornadoes ripped through the state in April.

The power station has three reactors that are designed similarly to the ones at Fukushima, but unlike what happened in Japan, emergency backup diesel generators were able to kick in and cool the nuclear fuel. In Japan, those generators already were wiped out by the tsunami.

“When it comes to nuclear reactor safety, they are planning for some very negative scenarios,” Dallas said.

Dallas said he sees a parallel between what happened in Japan and what could happen in the U.S. if no national decision is made on where to place spent fuel rods. Currently, most nuclear plants house them in pools of water. Dallas said the rods continued to pile up at the Fukushima plant — a pool meant to hold 300-400 rods was storing 1,500.

“The water went out, and those things started melting,” he said.

Lochbaum said he thinks in cases such as Vogtle, construction will be able to start, and if the NRC uncovers a problem, a fix will be ordered.

For example, the agency is looking at more accurate seismic data to see how prone nuclear reactors are to earthquakes on the East Coast. That could lead to additional reinforcement at the reactors, he said.

“The NRC is treating Japan and potential severe weather issues as retroactive. If there’s something to be learned, they’ll apply it retroactively,” he said, warning that could lead to additional delays at any proposed plants such as Vogtle.

“I don’t think they’ll hold up the [construction license] to wait and see what the task force has to say. But there may be some additional work you have to do after you’ve been issued the license.”

“I don’t see these as particularly surprising issues that have come up,” said Paul Patterson, an analyst with Glenrock Associates. “In general, you’re going to have from time to time a situation that happens at any industrial facility. The fact that there’s a leak of a plant that’s gone offline, that’s something you should expect with any industry.”

The accidents that happen at coal and natural gas plants are simply lower profile, he said. At nuclear plants, “you’re going to have more people that are concerned because of the ‘unknown’ factor,” he said, referring to the long-term impact of radiation.

NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said incidents at nuclear plants often have little to do with the reactor. At the Browns Ferry plant, for example, the power lines that led to the facility were down, but the reactor was fine.

Nuclear plants also are designed to shut down once a mechanical issue is detected.

“It’s safer to shut the plant down and figure out what went wrong instead of figuring out what’s going on while it’s still producing power,” he said.

http://www.ajc.com/business/nuke-safety-back-in-1006773.html

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