Raise awareness of environmental health issues in order to better protect our children and future generations.

04 September 2011

Vulnerability of United States Nuclear Reactors to Major Natural Disasters

Is Nature sending us a message?  Can we really continue to say that in the United States there will never be a nuclear disaster such as the one occurring in Fukushima?  Nature may be sending a message regarding the vulnerability of nuclear reactors to major natural disasters, through the recent earthquake and hurricane which struck the East Coast of the United States.  Many of us have seen the photos of the Ft. Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska surrounded by the sea of water of the flooded Missouri River.  Due to global warming, disasters such as hurricanes and flooding could increase both in frequency and intensity.  The pro-nuclear government in the United States refuses to learn the lessons of Fukushima.  It reassures us concerning the safety measures in place or being reinforced for nuclear power plants, while it continues with its plans to build more nuclear reactors.  The U.S. Government quasi-denies the existence of global warming. 

What are we to do?  We should become better informed about the issues related to nuclear power, reduce our energy needs, and work towards developing more sustainable sources of energy.

Here is one thing we can do:  If you are a resident of the United States, sign the petition launched by Greenpeace USA to  phase out nuclear power and invest in safe, clean, renewable energy.  "One in three Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant and is threatened by a nuclear disaster. These dangerous old nuclear plants are vulnerable to natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as deliberate attack. Fukushima showed how catastrophic a nuclear meltdown can be for people living nearby when a disaster knocks out power to a nuclear plant ... "

Three Mile Island nuclear power station, Pennsylvania, USA

First built in 1974. Licensed to operate until 2014. In 2009, license was extended to 2034.
Population living within 50 miles of nuclear plant in 2010 was 2.8 million.
Seismic risk estimated at 1 in 25,000.

North Ana nuclear power plant near Mineral, Virginia
On 23 August 2011, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake occurred at Mineral, Virginia, rocking the East Coast from South Carolina to Toronto, Canada, and waking authorities up to the issue of safety of nuclear power plants.  When the earthquake occurred, the two power plants in North Anna, Virginia, located near the epicenter of the quake just 90 miles south of Washington DC, shut down following loss of offsite power.  The plants switched immediately to four diesel generators, one of which did not function properly.  Electricity is vital for cooling the reactor core and fuel pools. 

The reactors suffered no damage, however it was later found that the earthquake caused 25 storage casks containing used nuclear fuel, each 16 feet tall, 8 feet in diameter and weighing 115 tons, to move from one to 4 and a half inches on their concrete pad.  These nuclear fuel rods are highly radioactive.  None of the casks was damaged and no radiation was released.

Originally, nuclear plant operators anticipated the reprocessing of spent fuel, recycling the usable portions and disposing of the rest as waste.  Commercial reprocessing was never successfully developed in the United States.  This has created yet another serious issue:  the shipment of radioactive spent fuel to other parts of the world. 

Early this year, 16 decommissioned steam generators, each 11.7 meters long, 2.5 meters in diameter and weighing 100 tons, were allowed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to be shipped from a Canadian nuclear plant on the Great Lakes, through the St. Lawrence River and across the Atlantic to a factory in Sweden where they would be dismantled and recycled into everyday items such as eating utensils.  The shipment of the generators, classified as low-level radioactive waste, was judged to be of negligible risk to the environment and the public. About 400 tons of non-recyclable radioactive waste (about 10% of the original volume of the generators) will remain at the end of the process, to be shipped back to Canada.  Anti-nuclear groups in the United States and Canada, as well as members of the U.S. Congress contested this shipment of potentially dangerous nuclear material.  Canada, like the United States, has an environmental record that leaves much to be desired.

Following the Virginia earthquake, ten nuclear plants in four states, including the one at Three Mile Island, declared an “unusual event”, which is level one of four emergency levels, meaning events are in process or have occurred which indicate potential degradation of the safety level of the plant, but no release of radioactive material. 

A member of the anti-nuclear environmental group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, commented, “the East Coast has some of the oldest, most problematic reactors in the country. The fact that we haven’t seen huge problems as a result of this earthquake is not an endorsement of the existing safety regimes, but sheer dumb luck.”  The rather pro-industry Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a report following the Fukushima disaster, recommending improvement of safety and backup systems at U.S. reactors.  A majority of the Commissioners voted against a preliminary review of these recommendations.  Once again, industry is protecting its financial assets to the detriment of human health.    This same Commission later stated that a preliminary analysis of the ground motion caused by the earthquake near the North Anna Power Station exceeded the maximum level of earthquake tolerance of the design of the two reactors.  The company which built the reactors said they were designed to withstand the equivalent of a 5.9 to 6.1 earthquake.

With the threat of Hurricane Irene on 25 August 2011, more than a dozen nuclear reactors along the East Coast were prepared for potential loss of power and damage from high winds and storm surges.  One of these was the Indian Point plant, located 35 miles from midtown Manhattan.  Hurricane-force winds are more of a danger to the power lines supporting the plant’s systems than to the reactors themselves.  Nuclear plants are required to shut down their reactors as hurricane-force winds approach.  Reliance is placed on diesel generators to automatically provide electricity for cooling when off-site power fails.  These generators are secured behind flood-proof walls and stocked with a seven-day supply of fuel.  All plants in U.S. coastal areas are built behind berms to withstand flooding, and key components and equipment are housed in watertight buildings.

Tornadoes are also a threat to nuclear reactors due to their potential to damage power lines leading to the plant.

Government authorities can say and do as they please.  The continued cover-up and neglect of affected populations regarding the Fukushima nuclear disaster are scandalous. 

by Meris Michaels

Ref:  articles by various anti-nuclear groups:
Beyond Nuclear” aims to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future.  The group advocates for an energy future that is sustainable, benign and democratic.

Physicians for Social Responsibility” is a non-profit advocacy organization that is the medical and public health voice for policies to prevent nuclear war and proliferation and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment.  This group is part of the network of associations of International Society of Doctors for the Environment.

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