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Could a nuclear accident like the 2011 meltdown that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan happen in the U.S.? David Lochbaum, a former nuclear engineer, director of the Nuclear Safety Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the authors of the new book-length account “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster,” thinks it’s more than possible.
The safety preparations at Japan's plant before the accident, he says, weren’t that different from the precautions taken at U.S. plants.
One of the most likely scenarios that could cause a meltdown is a flood.
In 2009 (2 years prior to Fukushima disaster), U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff identified about 35 reactors in the U.S. (out of the 100 currently operating) that were vulnerable to dam failures, according to Lochbaum.
For example, in June 2010, NRC risk analysts concluded that the failure of the Jocassee Dam near Oconee Nuclear Station (in South Carolina) had a 100 percent chance of causing Oconee’s three reactors to melt down, according to Lochbaum.
The main reason for concern? The plant’s flood wall was five feet high; the flood waters caused by a dam breakage were estimated to rise about 14 feet.
Fukushima’s seawall was also easily breached by a 50-foot tsunami wave.
“In other words, both Oconee and Fukushima were protected by flood walls that worked just fine, unless there was a flood,” Lochbaum says.
Another risk to U.S. nuclear plants is fire. Like floods, flames can disable safety systems and their backups.
For example, a U.S. plant came close to a fire-related meltdown in 1975. A worker at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama had accidentally caused a fire while using a candle to check for air leaks in a room directly below the control room for two reactors. The fire burned for almost seven hours, and damaged the electrical cables in the room such that all of the emergency cooling systems for one reactor shut down, along with most of the emergency systems for the other reactor.
"Only heroic operator actions prevented two meltdowns that day," Lochbaum says.
The NRC adopted fire protection regulations in 1980, and updated them in 2004. But “today, about half of the reactors operating in the US do not comply with either the 1980 or the 2004 regulations,” Lochbaum says.
So, what has been done, post-Fukushima?
The NRC issued recommendations and orders for upgrades shortly after the accident to try and apply lessons from the incident to domestic plants. By December 2016, U.S. nuclear plant owners must make various upgrades to help guard against extended blackouts, in order to be able to keep spent nuclear fuel cool and avoid meltdowns. Plant owners were ordered to invest in more portable power equipment in plants and nearby sites, improve instruments that measure the levels of water inside spent fuel pools and expand post-9/11 protections against terrorist attacks from single reactors to multiple reactors, among other actions. Plant operators think the first wave of these post-Fukushima upgrades are thought to cost around $3.6 billion over the next few years, according to a Platts survey.
And Daily Local reported last summer the government is requiring 31 U.S. nuclear plants with a similar reactor design as Fukushima's nuclear plants to install an upgraded ventilation system in six years to prevent hydrogen explosions. The order requirements, issued June 6, 2013, “include having vents capable of handling the pressures, temperatures, hydrogen concentrations and radiation levels that would be expected to result from a damaged reactor. The enhancements also ensure plant personnel can operate the vents safely if the reactor core is damaged,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan wrote.
Thousand of pipes in our local nuclear plant are starting to show wear. FPL seems hostile about criticism and responds with indignation. However, they don't address the problem. They skirt the issue. A huge and abnormal number of cooling tubes are wearing and they don't seem to know why. Abnormal wear from an unknown source isn't a safety issue?
This is frightening Christina! You're right, it is a safety issue, one that needs to be brought to light? Can you get proof of this? I would like to know why this isn't being investigated further, especially if it's true.
I live in Florida . . . Is FPL, Florida Power and Light?
Thanks for sharing this Christine and I'll do some digging to see what I can find. There are 2 plants in Florida .. St Lucie (2 reactors near Ft Pierce) and Turkey Point (2 reactors in Homestead) .. so I'll snoop around on both. I didn't realize the one near Crystal River closed for good - that might be another post in and of itself. I'll be posting a map of all North American plants soon so people can find out what's near them.