It Can’t Happen Here

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on March 31, 2011

(by Lou Dolinar, NationalReview.com) – Would U.S. nuclear reactors fare better in some ultimate crisis than those in Japan? For weeks now, we’ve been lectured by nuclear critics who say the design and failures of the Fukushima Daiichi installation presage [foreshadow] catastrophic failures in our own reactors. There’s good reason to believe the critics are wrong, though certainly the industry will learn lessons and apply technical tweaks.

Why? After 9/11, American nuclear plants underwent top-to-bottom safety review and upgrades unique in the world. Measures taken to protect against terror attacks can incidentally deal with the destruction of large areas of the plant, as well as subsequent catastrophic loss of electrical power, controls, and pumping equipment (among other dire scenarios) that fail in a fashion similar to what happened in Japan.

“You can have a tsunami, or an explosion, or an airplane hit the plant, but the plant must have on-site and off-site resources to prevent the release of radiation,” says Dr. Nils J. Diaz, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] under President George W. Bush. Diaz was the key figure in developing the emergency-response plans.

President Obama referred obliquely [indirectly] to these measures when he said, “Our nuclear power plants have undergone exhaustive study and have been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies.” The administration’s calm response to the crisis – in sharp contrast with, for example, Germany chancellor Angela Merkel’s, or even its own during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – appears based on the fact that American facilities are uniquely hardened against disaster.

As usual in a major crisis, the mainstream media has maintained a strict blackout on saying anything good about the Bush administration, along with the robust nature of American nuclear power. “I’ve been on TV 28 times – from MSNBC to CNN to Fox News – and several times I’ve mentioned it, I’ve tried to be reassuring, but every time the point they try to make is how bad things are.” says Diaz, who’s even written a couple of unpublished op-ed pieces. By contrast, the alarmists, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth, the Institute for Policy Studies [groups that take a liberal position on issues in science and the environment], and some Democratic-party officials, including New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts congressman Ed Markey, have virtually monopolized [taken control of] the national discussion. Their failure to include the post-9/11 upgrades is disingenuous [not really honest]. As stories go, this is a pretty hard one to miss. It’s even laid out in some detail on the NRC website.

To be fair to the media, the government and the nuclear industry have been [unwilling to give] details that terrorists could exploit, which invariably triggers an itch of distrust among journalists. Some things aren’t public. In addition, experts say cultural factors are also at work in dampening the discussion: Information and advice flows more freely when Japanese managers are treated collegially [in a friendly way], rather than lectured about their shortcomings. The U.S., in other words, can’t be seen by the Japanese as bragging about its own nuclear prowess.

Power operations are a good example of the difference between response here and in Japan: The Fukushima Daiichi cooling systems apparently functioned for a time on battery backup power, but when that ran out, emergency generators failed, and the reactors began heating up, eventually leading to explosions and further damage that still has the plant on shaky footing. An early power-up could have prevented all that, but the Japanese took days to string new lines to the site.

U.S. plants appear better able to maintain cooling and power – and to restore both fairly quickly if lost. A Tennessee Valley Authority [T.V.A.] facility recently displayed for the New York Times and several other outlets [that they] have portable backup batteries and some manual controls onsite to manage critical systems. As the Times’s Matthew Wald wrote, “One cart could power the instruments that measure the water level in the reactor vessel, an ability that Japanese operators lost a few hours after the tsunami hit. Another could operate critical valves that failed early at Fukushima.

“They’re like a backup to the backup,” Keith J. Polson, the T.V.A.’s vice president for the Browns Ferry site told the Times. “That’s what we think the Japanese didn’t have.”

[NY Times reporter] Wald didn’t see important hardware that was dispersed both onsite and off – hardware developed during anti-terror preparations. These include generators, fuel oil, pumps, safety gear, more batteries, lights, and radiation suits, according to Eric Lowen, chief consulting engineer at GE-Hitachi, which designed the Japanese plants. For security reasons he couldn’t specify the location or say how quickly this equipment could be deployed, but one expert on emergency response estimated that within twelve to 24 hours, possibly less, would be enough. We’re also told there are now mutual-aid pacts between plant operators, to coordinate cross-training and the sharing of personnel.

Decision-making may be another problem that’s plagued the Japanese, and is also something U.S. planners examined closely after 9/11.  According to Lowen, [without power] plant operators followed protocol to flood the reactor with “fire water” – as its known in the business. There’s even a standard fitting to connect pumps or a fire truck, and standard guidelines for when to apply external water. Sea water or water from a hydrant works fine for cooling and ending the immediate emergency, but it is a highly destructive step: Anything other than distilled water will damage the plant and force its owners to decommission it.

Media reports suggest TEPCO delayed too long in flooding the reactor with sea water, in part because managers were unwilling to write off a multi-billion-dollar investment. Lowen and other industry experts are more sympathetic; they say the sheer level of destruction, the loss of life, and the personal loss in the country may have crippled decision making. Anthony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer with the Nuclear Energy Institute, says there’s still an information vacuum: “We don’t know whether they moved fast or slow.”

Still, judging from comments by operators and the NRC, there’s a stronger chain of command in place in the U.S., in part because of reforms after the Three Mile Island accident, where the plant operator delayed informing the NRC (which had minimal authority at the time anyway), and partly as a result of an increased emphasis on potential terror attacks. U.S. plant technicians also benefit from stepped-up safety drills, based on computer modeling, in which the NRC runs simulations at a faster pace than occurs in real life until workers’ every move becomes automatic, observes NRC spokesman Scott Burnell. People in the industry won’t come right out and say it, but one gets the distinct impression that a U.S. operator, to prevent a meltdown or radiation release, would not dither [hesitate] over sacrificing a reactor by flooding it with seawater. “I think we have the protocol in place where the action will be taken,” says Pietrangelo.

Post-9/11, the NRC verified some theoretical problems at nuclear plants the hard way: They ran so-called Red Team operations. Among the scenarios: flooding, airplanes crashing into facilities, and the successful penetration of a site by terrorists equipped with explosives. They’ve studied various vulnerabilities to cyber attacks and inside jobs. The NRC website indicates that they’ve also come up with methods for dealing with spent fuel pools like those that have plagued the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as dry storage casks for nuclear waste that are also considered problematic.

Besides the post-9/11 emphasis on security, there are other reasons why it is dubious [questionable] to equate U.S. reactors to Japan’s.

While there are similarities among Japanese plants and the 23 GE Mark 1 plants in the U.S. -including the principal component (i.e. the reactor and the containment systems) – the overall design, which includes electrical systems and generators, is site-specific. For example, according to GE’s Lowen, TEPCO wanted to minimize the amount of space occupied by the six reactors. This creates a situation where problems with one reactor can interfere with another. In the U.S., operators generally opt to spread out their reactors or have fewer reactors on one site. Brown’s Ferry plant that the Times toured, for example, has three reactors; the Fukushima Daiichi has six. Conversely, Japanese plants are generally more earthquake resistant that those in the U.S. that don’t sit on geological faults.

………………….

The one legitimate systemic issue is overcrowding of spent fuel rods in the cooling pool. In fact, many U.S. facilities have even more spent fuel than the Fukushima Daiich plant that should be disposed of elsewhere. In the United States, however, there’s one guy to blame: Senate majority leader Harry Reid, along with his gambling buddies in Las Vegas, who have blocked safe long-term storage at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas, to protect the tourism industry from radiation-induced paranoia.

Overall, Diaz says, “we have the best system in the world to deal with large scale damage to the plants, including explosions and other external hazards. Could it be better? Sure. Is it continuing to be reviewed? Sure. Maybe additional changes will need to be made, but they will be minor.”

Lou Dolinar is a retired columnist and reporter for Newsday.

Originally published March 30, 2011.  Reprinted here on March 31, 2011, for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from National Review. Visit the website at NationalReview.com.

Questions

NOTE TO STUDENTS:  Some people are fearful about the production/use of nuclear energy.  The best thing to do is to learn the facts and come to an educated conclusion on where you stand.  If you are having trouble understanding the article, read it a second time.  Also, ask a parent to discuss your answers.

1. Answer the following questions about this commentary:

a) For what reasons does commentator Lou Dolinar say the catastrophe that happened with Japan’s nuclear reactor(s) can’t happen here? (see paragraphs 2, 8-9, 14-16)

b) For what reason does Mr. Dolinar say President Obama reacted so calmly (compared to leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel) to Japan’s nuclear crisis? (see paragraphs 4, 2)

c) How has the media, extreme environmental groups and some Democrat party leaders portrayed the likelihood of nuclear reactor catastrophes in the U.S.? (see para. 5)

d) Why doesn’t the American public (or the media) know specific details about the U.S.’s emergency plans for our nuclear plants? (see para. 6, 10)

e) After the earthquake and tsunami, what factors contributed to the crisis at the Japanese nuclear reactors? (And how is the U.S. different?) (see paragraphs 7, 11-13)

f) What is a legitimate concern for U.S. nuclear plants? How can this problem be solved, according to Mr. Dolinar? (see para. 17)

2. What is the main idea of Mr. Dolinar’s commentary?

3. Do you think Mr. Dolinar makes a persuasive argument?

4. Do you think this commentary would cause a person opposed to the use of nuclear power plants in the U.S. to change his/her mind? Explain your answer.


Background

THE NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION (NRC):  from nrc.gov:

  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent agency of the U.S. government that was established by the Energy Reorganization Act in 1974.
  • The NRC oversees reactor safety and security, reactor licensing and renewal, radioactive material safety, security and licensing, and spent fuel management (storage, security, recycling, and disposal).