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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Coastal storms and nuclear fire storms

The risks of severe weather to communities near nuclear power plants
Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska, flooded in 2011 by Missouri
RIver flooding, remains closed.
By Will Collette

The Charlestown Town Council held a workshop on January 10 to discuss the town’s responses to Hurricane Sandy (which hit us with tropical storm force). While the town response received general, and deserved, praise, the lingering question is what will happen the next time, especially since, sooner or later, we’re going to be hit with a storm of much higher intensity, perhaps Category 3 or higher.

This is also a question examined by a recent report published by the Columbia Journalism Review’s new website, “Remapping Debate.” The report, “Nuclear power plant flood risk: Sandy was just a warm-up,” was released on December 19th.

I have been reporting on these kinds of issues in Progressive Charlestown regularly, largely because Charlestown is only 20 miles downwind from the Millstone nuclear power plant just on the other side of New London. This facility has had its safety problems and is the site of millions of pounds of high-level radioactive waste.

As Sandy approached the northeastern coastline, nuclear power plants from the Chesapeake Bay to Connecticut either powered down or shut down. Millstone powered down.

Major storms pose two main types of immediate challenges for nuclear power plant operators. Storm surge can knock out the power to the plant that runs the pumps for reactor coolant water. When that happens, backup generators are supposed to kick in to make sure the pumps keep working and prevent a catastrophic melt-down. During Sandy, the storm surge apparently came within a whisker of topping the berms protecting the back-up generators at the Oyster Creek Generating Station in New Jersey.

And that was for a Category 1 storm.

Charlestown's shore properties after the 1938 hurricane
The second threat can come from the breech of the nuclear waste containment ponds. The 2011 Japanese tsunami breeched the containment ponds at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and allowed the radioactive rods to become exposed to air. This led to a fiery explosion that spewed dangerous levels of radiation over a 50-mile radius and contaminated an even wider area.

The design of the Fukushima plant is similar to that used across the US. According to Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “That plant [Fukushima] wasn’t unaware of the flooding potential but the magnitude of the challenge they faced was just more than they could handle.” The flooded backup generators and pumps simply couldn’t keep the reactor and nuclear waste ponds cooled.

Millstone is storing nearly all of its radioactive waste in cooling ponds. It is currently seeking approval from the state of Connecticut to set up a system of above ground storage casks that could hold 3.6 million pounds of radioactive waste.

That plan has drawn some public protests, mainly from citizens who argue that people were promised when nuclear plants were built that the federal government would set up a national nuclear waste repository in Nevada and that little waste would be stored on site.

That national repository has not happened – and probably won’t in the foreseeable future, forcing most nuclear power plant operators to store their spent fuel rods on-site. Given that the waste currently has nowhere else to go, dry cask storage is clearly safer than keeping the spent fuel rods in water. In my opinion, these plants should never have been built, but for Millstone and all the rest of the plants, that objection is academic.

The report notes that nuclear plant problems caused by natural disasters would be made worse by “a cascade of indirect effects.”

These types of effects actually came up during Charlestown’s Hurricane Sandy review. A big storm downs power lines, topples trees and can cut key routes. Getting help into the site becomes problematic.

Notifying the public if there is an emergency at the power plant also becomes difficult. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires each operator to have a system of operational warning sirens. But during Sandy, one-third of the sirens at the Peach Bottom Generating Station near the Chesapeake Bay in Pennsylvania were knocked out.

“Plan B” is to send plant personnel around the area with loud-speakers mounted on vehicles. But what if the roads are blocked by debris?

“Plan C” is to send out text messages, reverse 911 calls and notices on TV and radio. But what if those are also knocked out? Batteries fade after a couple of days. In Charlestown, our first responders talked about the need to have places where residents can recharge their phones and computer batteries.

The report’s authors asked NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan about these quite plausible “what ifs” and he replied “that’s always a concern.” Sheehan also said that the NRC has not factored in the probable effects of climate change, most significantly the increased frequency of very severe storms, into its flood safety policies.

Sheehan said the new chief of the NRC, Allison MacFarlane, told the NRC staff that she wants them to take climate change factors into consideration but “has issued no official call, schedule, or process” to change the NRC’s regulations.