March 31, 2011
Measures taken to protect U.S. nuclear reactors from terrorist attacks after September 11th have unwittingly made them much better prepared for natural disasters like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, according to this report in National Review Online.
Lou Dolinar, a retired reporter and columnist for Newsday, takes an extensive look at the preparations and compares them favorably with Japanese technology, which has not created such extensive back-up systems.
“Power operations are a good example of the difference between response here and in Japan,” write Dolinar. “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 facility recently displayed for the New York Times and several other outlets have portable backup batteries and some manual controls onsite to manage critical systems. As the Times’ 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.’”
Although he is critical of negative press coverage, Dolinar notes that one reason the word has not gotten out is that much of the preparation has been kept quiet for security purposes. Dolinar notes that the chain-of command in U.S. reactors is also better and that decisions can be reached quicker. He cites the delay among Tokyo Electric officials in flooding the reactors with seawater and the resulting charges that they were hesitant to ruin the facility. But he also says that the confusion and disarray resulting from the earthquake probably played a part as well.
Dolinar points to several other steps that have been taken to strengthen American reactors over their Japanese counterparts. He also notes that the Japanese have crowded their nuclear parks with twice as many reactors as is normal for the U.S. But he says the one place where American reactors are more vulnerable than their Japanese counterparts is in the volume of spent fuel at the sites. “[T]here’s one guy to blame,” he says, “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.” Still, blame won’t do if spent fuel becomes the focus of a nuclear accident. It’s good that other Senate Democrats are already discussing serious steps to revive Yucca Mountain or even begin a reprocessing effort in the United States.
Read more at the National Review.