Are The Self-Destructing Japanese Reactors — And Their Many U.S. Siblings — Safe?

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It wasn’t the nuclear fallout from Japan that was spooking Americans this week, but the sudden awareness that many of them were living too close for comfort to aging nuclear reactors similar to the ones imploding on the other side of the world. Three of the six General Electric Mark 1 boiling-water reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan were heading toward meltdown of one form or another, while a fourth was off-line but with stored fuel rods that could spew radiation as well (the other two are off-line, as well). Twenty-three of the 104 U.S. reactors are of the same basic design.

As details surrounding the blueprints of the GE-designed reactors spread across the country popped like homegrown IEDs, local utilities tried to calm residents’ concerns.

“The Japanese nuclear plants are in a much higher area of earthquake risk and magnitude than are TVA’s plants, and we obviously don’t have the risk of a tsunami like what we saw in Japan,” TVA spokesman Ray Golden told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The TVA’s oldest reactor, Browns Ferry in Athens, Ala., shares its design with the Japanese reactors.

Three nuclear power plants near Philadelphia — Hope Creek in Salem County, N.J., Oyster Creek in Ocean County, N.J., and Peach Bottom in Lancaster County, Penn. — have the same design as the Japanese reactors. “All of our nuclear facilities are designed to American seismic and flood standards, based on their local geographies,” April Schilpp, a spokeswoman for operator Exelon, explained to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s not a one-size fits all solution.”

“This will certainly be a learning experience for the industry,” Progress Energy spokesman Mike Hughes told the Triangle Business Journal in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., given the company’s two reactors at Brunswick, N.C. Both are GE’s Mark 1 containment design, which in the Japanese version features 6.7-inch-thick steel walls and 8.4-inch-thick steel roofs and floors. “This kind of review goes on all the time, and as you know, sharing information is a critical part of the industry worldwide.”

Thankfully, magnitude 9.0 earthquakes followed by a massive tsunami don’t occur all the time worldwide. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that it was that one-two punch that sent the Japanese nuclear reactors and their radioactive cores towards the abyss. It was the tidal wave that knocked out the power, and the backup power, needed to keep the cores cool by constantly pumping water through them. But make no mistake about it: most of the nuclear plants in the U.S. possess some of what doomed the Japanese reactors, from locations near coastlines or above fault lines, to electrical systems need to keep cooling water flowing. None is foolproof. The chances of a similar accident are remote, but not impossible. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was deemed remote, until it happened. So was 9/11, not to mention the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series.

“During the magnitude 9.0 earthquake (the fifth largest earthquake in recorded history), the GE Boiling Water Reactors performed as designed and initiated safe shut down processes,” General Electric said in a statement Tuesday. “We understand that the back-up generators performed as designed to begin the cooling process. Shortly thereafter, we understand that the tsunami disabled the back-up emergency generation systems.”

GE went on to add the following: “BWR reactors are designed to be able to safely shutdown in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster.” Like much of the debate now underway, that’s a statement with the half-life of a half-truth: such a safe shutdown requires continued power to operate the pumps that cool the reactor, even after it is shut down.

Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission maintained that U.S. nuclear power plants are up to the challenges posed by Mother Nature. ”Even those plants that are located outside of areas with extensive seismic activity are designed for safety in the event of such a natural disaster,” it said in a statement. ”The N.R.C. requires that safety-significant structures, systems and components be designed to take into account the most severe natural phenomena historically estimated for the site and surrounding area.”

U.S. officials emphasized that U.S. reactors are designed to withstand only locally-relevant earthquakes, and that power and backup power resources are sufficient to keep the cores from overheating as they are in Japan. They also noted that the Japanese reactors’ 40-year old design is dated and any newer designs — including those not yet built — would be safer. But they plainly have no choice other than to say that.

“Right now we continue to believe that nuclear power plants in this country operate safely and securely,” NRC chairman Gregory Jackzko said Monday, in a less-than-forceful endorsement of the technology he is in charge of controlling. He made the comment during a White House briefing, which suggests how serious the situation is — or how seriously the Obama Administration believes it to be — or, perhaps and most likely, both. “All our plants are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena like earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunamis,” Jaczko added.

Lessons to be learned from Japan’s experience are “something we’ll deal with down the road,” Jaczko said. “But bottom line, right now, we believe that the plants in this country continue to be designed to a very high standard for seismic- and tsunami-type events.”

The nation’s top nuclear regulator appeared alongside Daniel Poneman, the deputy energy secretary. Poneman stood firm amid questions from reporters as to whether or not the fires burning in the Japanese plants have changed the Administration’s assessment that nuclear power is a key energy source for the nation’s future (atomic power currently generates about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity). “We view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we’re trying to build for a clean-energy future,” Poneman said.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed suggestions that because the U.S. might make changes in how it regulates its reactors because of what is happening in Japan, that it’s currently not doing all that is possible to keep them safe. “Every time there is new information that comes in from an actual event, you take that data and you analyze it and you examine whether or not it affects the models you have for safety and security of your facilities,” Carney said. “To suggest that everything is static forever obviously would be wrong, because there is new information to be gleaned from incidents.”

There was no sense that Washington would do what Berlin has done: take seven German nuclear reactors built before 1980 off-line until safety reviews of their operation are completed. Some Germans saw it as political theater — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to reverse a position taken by her coalition government last fall is seen as an effort to win votes in three regional elections over the next two weeks where her party is in trouble. “That responsibility lies with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Carney said Tuesday. “They have made the judgment that our facilities are safe and secure…and that would apply to old reactors as well as newer ones.”

The World Association of Nuclear Operators, a safety group founded in 1989, said it was too early to discern the lessons of the Japanese meltdowns. “In these unpredictable and changing circumstances, it is dangerous to speculate on the situation at the affected nuclear power plants and certainly too early to draw conclusions,” said WANO chairman Laurent Stricker from the group’s London-based headquarters (it has regional offices in Atlanta, Moscow, Paris…and Tokyo). ““This is a tragedy in every sense of the word, and the immediate priority for Japanese authorities and our members is emergency response.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group, said the 23 U.S. reactors, spread among 16 locations, based on the same reactor and containment design are Browns Ferry 1, 2 and 3 (Athens, Ala.); Brunswick 1 and 2 (Southport, N.C.); Cooper (Brownville, Neb.); Dresden 2 and 3 (Morris, Ill.); Duane Arnold (Palo, Iowa); Fitzpatrick (Scriba, N.Y.); Hatch 1 and 2 (Baxley, Ga.); Fermi (Toledo, Ohio); Hope Creek (Hancocks Bridge, N.J.); Monticello (Monticello, Minn.); Nine Mile Point 1 (Scriba, N.Y.); Oyster Creek (Forked River, N.J.); Peach Bottom 2 and 3 (Delta, Penn.); Pilgrim (Plymouth, Mass.); Quad Cities 1 and 2 (Cordova, Ill.); and Vermont Yankee (Vernon, Vt.).

The NEI said it is wrong to apply the type of earthquakes suffered in Japan and apply them to U.S. sites. “It is important not to extrapolate earthquake and tsunami data from one location of the world to another when evaluating these natural hazards,” it said. “These catastrophic natural events are very region- and location-specific, based on tectonic and geological fault line locations.”

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said Tuesday that he wants the NRC to decide quickly if U.S. nuclear plant standards needed beefing up following the events in Japan. “I think undoubtedly they’ll be taking a fresh look at the safety precautions and provisions that are in place, in light of whatever is learned from the Japanese,” said Bingaman, chairman of the energy and natural resources committee. “I hope that the Commission will quickly reach some conclusions about whether the safety precautions and provisions that it has insisted on are adequate for the future.”

Republicans were more measured. “I think we ought not to make American U.S. domestic energy policy in the wake of a catastrophic event,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said Tuesday. “I’m reminded of all the discussion last year after the BP oil spill about the appropriateness of drilling in the Gulf. I just don’t think we ought to in the wake of a crisis be making long-term decisions about America’s energy sufficiency.” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., didn’t think the Japanese accidents should delay a pending resumption of nuclear power plants in the U.S. “There’s been a pause for 15 years now,” he said, “and I think it’s time to continue on.”

Nuclear skeptics, including veteran nuclear-plant engineer David Lochbaum, now with the Union of Concerned Scientists, say the events in Japan suggest that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to bolster backup power requirements, as well as stepping up fire protection and emergency evacuation requirements.

The concerns go back 40 years. The GE design uses a less robust containment vessel that began generating concern among U.S. officials 40 years ago shortly after they were designed by General Electric. They were offered as a cheaper option to the more costly pressurized water reactors developed by Westinghouse and other companies. Joseph Hendrie was the top safety official at the Atomic Energy Commission back then. He would later become chairman of the AEC’s successor, the NRC.

Hendrie wrote on Sept. 25, 1972, that barring such designs was “attractive” because alternate designs have the “notable advantage of brute simplicity in dealing with a primary blowdown.” But he added that industry had so embraced the GE design that “reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power….it would throw into question the continued operation of licensed plants…and would generally create more turmoil than I can stand thinking about.” Several documents on the design of the Mark I reactor have been posted online by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an anti-nuclear group based in Takoma Park, Md.

Concerns resurfaced 15 years later. “I don’t have the same warm feeling about GE containment that I do about the larger dry containments,’’ said Harold Denton, director of NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, in 1986. “There is a wide spectrum of ability to cope with severe accidents at GE plants,’” Denton told an industry gathering, according to the newsletter Inside N.R.C. “And I urge you to think seriously about the ability to cope with such an event if it occurred at your plant…There has been a lot of work done on those containments, but Mark I containments…you’ll find something like a 90 percent probability of that containment failing.”

The Mark 1s in the U.S. have been modified in the wake of those concerns to reduce pressure inside the containment vessel if temperatures rise too high. It is not known just what changes may have been made in the Japanese reactors since they began operating about four decades ago.

On Monday, GE issued a statement defending its design. “The BWR Mark 1 reactor is the industry’s workhorse with a proven track record of safety and reliability for more than 40 years,” GE said. “Today, there are 32 BWR Mark 1 reactors operating as designed worldwide. There has never been a breach of a Mark 1 containment system.” It is not yet known whether a more robust design would have fared any better in Japan, experts acknowledge.

Too much reactor design, critics say, is based on dealing with single-point failures that could be overwhelmed by an earthquake, or a tsunami, but not both. Backup power requirements of four to eight hours assume the existing electrical supply remains intact, for example, and simply needs to be reconnected.

The NRC said it was sending a team of experts to Japan to “conduct all activities needed to understand the status of efforts to safely shut down the Japanese reactors; better understand the potential impact on people and the environment of any radioactivity releases; if asked, provide technical advice and support through the U.S. ambassador for the Japanese government’s decision making process; and draw on NRC-headquarters expertise for any other additional technical requirements.”

It’s important to note reactors — even those of the same design — are rarely identical. But it’s also worth noting that the fact that four of the six reactors at Fukushima were all in danger highlights just how vulnerable the plants are to the unanticipated. Planning for the unanticipated is just as much art — imagination — as science.

Some design elements look dubious in hindsight. Each Mark 1 reactor at Fukushima, for example, has its own spent-fuel pool inside the reactor building, where exhausted rods are placed to cool down. If an explosion drains the pools, the spent fuel could ignite and release tremendous amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, was quick to denounce lawmakers like Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who called for a halt in building new reactors in this country and likened what is happening in Japan to the Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine in 1986. Chernobyl, a Heritage blog said, was “was caused by an inherent design problem and communist operator error that is not present at any of the nuclear plants in Japan.”

The political reaction to the Japanese events is only beginning to unfold. “The one place where I see a potential shift in the United States is in the group of environmental advocates who may have been willing in the past to compromise on nuclear energy as part of a broader deal on climate change, just like many of them were willing to do the same on offshore drilling,” said Michael Levi, a senior fellow on energy and the environmental at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This sort of event will make them a lot less comfortable doing that.” Levi cautioned that the so-called “nuclear renaissance” has “a lot of speed bumps still ahead…this adds another complication to it, but to predict that this will somehow decisively shift the course — I think it’s at best too early to make that judgment.”