Sunday, September 11, will of course be the tenth anniversary of a tragedy that fundamentally changed America in ways we are still trying to understand. But this 9/11 is also a day for other anniversaries, ones that will likely get little, if any, recognition in the US.
In 1985, for instance, September 11 saw a Keystone Kops-like collection of miscues during a test of the remote shutdown protocols at the Limerick Generating Station, a boiling water nuclear reactor outside of Philadelphia. During the shutdown, a valve on a cooling system failed to open, and attempts to manually open the valve were met by a locked door, and a call for a key, which, after a 15-minute wait, turned out to be the wrong key. Once the proper key was found and the door was opened, the operators found the valve’s hand wheel chained and padlocked to prevent accidental opening. Those keys were in the abandoned control room. Bolt cutters had to be used before the operators could finally open the valve.
All that time, the reactor core’s temperature was increasing. Fortunately, the test was done during startup, when decay heat is relatively low, so control rods were able to slow the reaction enough to provide time to overcome the multiple barriers to opening the valve. Had the plant been operating at full power when this series of problems occurred, the outcome would likely have not been so rosy.
September 11 will also mark six months since the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan triggered a series of cataclysmic failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. That accident provides no amusing anecdotes or happy endings, but those horrible events should provide a loud wakeup call and numerous object lessons for nuclear power programs across the globe.
As previously noted, the Japanese nightmare and domestic political realities have spurred German Prime Minister Angela Merkel to announce a rather rapid phase out of her country’s nuclear plants. The Japanese government, too, has spoken of turning away from nuclear power and toward renewable alternatives.
But here in the United States, six months on from Japan’s quake, there are no such proclamations or pledges–if anything, quite the contrary–and almost no movement on even the most incremental of recommendations.
In the face of lessons still not learned, a trio of nuclear experts gathered in Washington, DC on September 8 to highlight key concerns that still have not been addressed six months after the start of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Included on the list are several issues discussed in this space since the Fukushima quake (this is a partial and edited list–please use the link for more concerns and more explanation):
The U.S. regulatory response since Fukushima has been inadequate. “Six months after Fukushima, it seems clear that the U.S. is not going to undertake the type of fundamental, no-holds-barred look at its nuclear regulatory practices that followed the much less serious accident at Three Mile Island some 30 years ago.”
America should avoid post-9/11 mistakes in tightening reactor safety standards. “In responding to Fukushima by issuing orders, the NRC should not make the same mistakes as it did following 9/11, when industry stonewalling delayed implementation of critical security measures for many years. Even today, some post 9/11 security upgrades have not been completed at numerous plants. . . . The U.S. must respond to Fukushima in a much more comprehensive way or it may soon face an accident even worse than Fukushima.”
The U.S. was warned of Fukushima-style problems but failed to act … and is still failing to do so. “U.S. reactors have some of the shortcomings of the Fukushima plants. Furthermore, citizen groups and scientists had tried to call one of these – spent fuel pool vulnerability — to Nuclear Regulatory Commission attention during the last decade. The NRC dismissed these efforts. . . . Without a root cause analysis of its own failure to heed the now validated warnings about spent fuel pools, the NRC may patch the technical problems revealed by Fukushima, but it won’t fix the underlying shortcomings that allow defects to persist until catastrophic events rather than regulatory vigilance force the nuclear industry and the public to face up to them.”
Emergency planning zones in the U.S. must be expanded. “In contrast to the [NRC] Task Force conclusions, we believe that emergency planning zones should be expanded, certain hydrogen control measures should be immediately enforced and spent fuel transfer to dry casks should be accelerated. Also, the safety margins of new reactors need to be reassessed.”
The recent East Coast earthquake should spur more NRC safety analysis. “The earthquake near the North Anna nuclear plant, which reportedly exceeded the plant’s seismic design basis, reinforces the urgency of the NRC Fukushima task force’s recommendation that all plants immediately be reviewed for their vulnerability to seismic and flooding hazards based on the best available information today.”
To that last point, as noted before, the earthquake that struck Mineral, VA in late August should have moved US nuclear regulators to quickly adopt the recommendations of the Fukushima task force. Well, the quake doesn’t seem to have moved the NRC much, but it did move some things, like most of the 117-ton dry storage casks at the North Anna facility. . . and, as we now have learned, pretty much everything else there:
Last month’s record earthquake in the eastern United States may have shaken a Virginia nuclear plant twice as hard as it was designed to withstand, a spokesman for the nuclear safety regulator said on Thursday.
Dominion Resources told the regulator that the ground under the plant exceeded its “design basis” — the first time an operating U.S. plant has experienced such a milestone. . . .
That a facility experienced such a milestone is now known because, over two weeks after the fact, data from the so-called “shake plates” has finally been released (almost a week after it was expected):
“We are currently thinking that at the higher frequencies, the peak acceleration was around 0.26” g, which is a unit of gravity that measures the impact of shaking on buildings, said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman.
The plant was designed to withstand 0.12 g of horizontal ground force for parts that sit on rock, and 0.18 g for parts that sit on soil, Burnell said.
Dominion’s sensors recorded average horizontal ground force of 0.13 g in an east-west direction and 0.175 g in a north-south direction, officials said.
The apparent discrepancy seems to stem from the distance between instruments used by the US Geological Survey and those cited by North Anna’s operator, Dominion, but even taking the smaller numbers, the design limits of the plant were exceeded.
Dominion officials have been quick to point out that even though some things have moved and some structures show cracks, those changes are merely cosmetic and in no way dangerous. But nuclear engineer John H. Bickel says that vessels and pipes are not the first things to go in a quake:
[A]n analysis of plants hit by earthquakes had shown that the most vulnerable components were ceramic insulators on high-voltage lines that supply the plants with power and electrical relays, which resemble industrial-strength circuit-breakers and switches.
Even if the relays are not damaged, they might be shaken so that they change positions, cutting off the flow of electricity or allowing it to flow without any command from an operator.
As previously noted (with more than a hint of irony), in order to safely generate electrical power, nuclear plants need an uninterrupted supply of electrical power. Without electricity, cooling systems and important monitors in both the reactors and spent fuel storage pools cannot function. Without effective cooling, nuclear facilities are looking at a series of disasters like the ones encountered at Fukushima Daiichi. That the most quake-vulnerable components directly affect a nuclear plant’s power supply is yet another data point underscoring the urgent need to review and enhance seismic safety at US facilities.
But even before that nation-wide examination can take place, the damage to the shaken North Anna plant needs to be surveyed and analyzed so that Dominion might restart its reactors. What does Dominion need to show in order to get the thumbs up, what criteria need to be met, what repairs or retrofits should be required? To paraphrase the head of the NRC: Who knows?
In an interview last week, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Reuters it was unclear what the plant would need to show to resume operations because it is the first time an operating plant has sustained a beyond-design-basis quake.
As Hurricane Irene revealed the lack of national guidelines for what to do in the face of an approaching storm, the Virginia earthquake has shown that the United States has no regulatory regime for learning, analyzing, or acting on data from events that exceed the often-negotiated-down design parameters of its nuclear facilities.
In fact, the NRC does not even have a post-quake inspection protocol. Inspections of North Anna are being done according to procedural guidelines drawn up by the Electric Power Research Institute, “a nonprofit utility consortium that has inspected dozens of industrial plants hit by earthquakes around the world.”
Yes, the nuclear industry has written its own post-event checklist, and, in the absence of any other standard, is left alone to use it.
That sort of self-policing leads to some noteworthy analysis, like this from a nuclear industry attorney: “You shake something really hard, and it’s not designed to be shaken that hard — it doesn’t mean that it’s broken.”
But there is something even more disturbing, if that is possible, propagated by the weak regulations and weak-willed regulators. It leaves space for arguments like this one from that same industry lawyer:
The incident helps make the case for new-generation nuclear plants, which have additional safety features. . . . “If you can have a car from 2011 vs. a car from 1978, what are you going to put your toddler in?”
Beyond the fact that no one is actually suggesting the 1978 plants get traded in for newer models (just augmented with them), cars have to compete for consumer dollars in a way that nuclear plants do not. Nuclear plants could not be built, fueled, operated or maintained without massive subsidies, loan guarantees, and infrastructure commitments from the federal government.
Also of note, a 2011 automobile is safer and more efficient than a 1978 model because of government regulation. The auto industry has fought improvements like mandatory airbags, three-point restraints, and CAFE standards, but a strong government imposed those requirements anyway. And your toddler is safer in that car because the Consumer Product Safety Commission reviews the design of child car seats, and laws mandate their use.
Where the comparison does work, however, is that both represent a false choice. Just as a car is not the only way to transport a toddler, nuclear plants are not the only means by which to generate power. And in 2011, there are many more choices, and many safer choices, than there were in 1978.
Which recalls the important contrast between a country such as Germany–which, faced with a restive electorate and lessons to be learned from Japan’s misfortune, has made a commitment to not just trade in nuclear but trade up to renewable alternatives–and the US, where corporate influence and politics as usual have left the government with seemingly few options beyond willful ignorance and calcification.
Even without recognition of the Japan quake’s semi-anniversary, September 11 will probably be a tense day for most Americans, especially those with personal connections to the events of ten years ago. But while remembrance will be hard, it will mostly be so because of an event now relegated to history.
Residents of Japan, still living with an ongoing and ever-evolving threat, cannot so neatly define their anguish. And if there is a message to be found in this coincidental concurrence of dates, it perhaps springs from there. While Americans can debate what could have been done to prevent the attacks of 9/11/2001, it is a debate held in hindsight. For the Japanese dealing with the aftermath of their disaster, hindsight still seems like a luxury to be enjoyed very far in the future.
But, for the United States, a debate about what can be done to prevent a Fukushima-like disaster here is theoretically blessed, both because it is a debate that can be had before the next crisis, and because it is a debate that can be informed by events. And experience, science, economics and common sense are all pretty clear on what needs to be done.