Archive for Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wolf Creek nuclear power plant not fully twister-proof

The Wolf Creek nuclear power plant, which went online in 1985, is shown in this Jan. 11, 2000, photograph.

The Wolf Creek nuclear power plant, which went online in 1985, is shown in this Jan. 11, 2000, photograph.

May 26, 2011


— The closest nuclear power plant to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., was singled out weeks before the storm for being vulnerable to twisters.

Inspections triggered by Japan's nuclear crisis found that some emergency equipment and storage sites at the Wolf Creek nuclear plant in southeastern Kansas might not survive a tornado.

Specifically, plant operators and federal inspectors said Wolf Creek did not secure equipment and vehicles needed to fight fires, retrieve fuel for emergency generators and resupply water to keep nuclear fuel cool as it's being moved.

Despite these findings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that the plant met requirements put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks that are designed to keep the nuclear fuel cool and containment structures intact during an emergency.

Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp., which runs the facility about 150 miles northwest of Joplin, said it would take action to correct the problems.

"The issues affected only one of several (emergency) procedures, so we continue to conclude Wolf Creek meets requirements, the same conclusion we've reached for every U.S. plant," said Scott Burnell, a NRC spokesman.

Wolf Creek, until recently, was one of three nuclear plants placed on a federal watch list in March for safety-related issues.

David Lochbaum, a former nuclear plant engineer who now works on nuclear safety for the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, said the equipment that a tornado could disable is the "backup of backups," but that potential should raise concern nonetheless.

"It's kind of nuclear safety 101," Lochbaum said. "It's kind of stupid for it to be there, where it could help with a tornado, and a tornado takes it out."

Already this year, tornadoes have knocked out power to nuclear power plants in Alabama and Virginia, exposing vulnerabilities.

At Browns Ferry in Alabama, storms disabled sirens, meaning that police and emergency personnel would have had to use telephones and loudspeakers in a crisis.

At the Surry Power Station in Virginia, documents obtained by The Associated Press show that a tornado badly damaged a fuel tanker used to refuel a backup generator.

Those instances, along with the situation at Wolf Creek, highlight a larger problem at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors: While reactors and safety systems are designed to withstand a worst-case earthquake, flood, or tornado, that doesn't necessarily mean all emergency equipment or the buildings that house such equipment are disaster proof.

Wolf Creek's location in Tornado Alley means that it was designed to handle the maximum tornadoes possible for the United States, with wind speeds up to 360 miles per hour and a maximum rotational speed of 290 miles per hour.

But its fire truck is parked in a sheet-metal building "not protected from seismic or severe weather events," according to the NRC inspection conducted after the Japanese disaster.

Jenny Hageman, a spokeswoman for the plant, said there are other options besides on-site equipment for dealing with fires.

"We are absolutely protected from a tornado," Hageman said. "Is everything protected from a tornado on this job site? No. But we protect the critical elements."

The NRC's post-Japan inspections found numerous other instances where U.S. nuclear plants kept equipment needed to fight fires or to cope with a loss of electrical power in places that a flood could overwhelm or an earthquake could damage.

What sets Wolf Creek apart is that it is at much greater risk of being struck by a tornado than other plants are from natural disasters.

Since 1985, when the Wolf Creek plant came online, six tornadoes have touched down in Coffey County, where the plant is located, according to the National Climatic Data Center. All of those twisters were minor, and caused no injuries or deaths.

Over that same time period, the National Weather Service issued 23 tornado warnings in the county.

"Before Joplin, we had a tornado in the county next to us that ripped up the city of Reading," said Coffey County emergency management coordinator Russel Stukey. Stukey expressed skepticism about the NRC's findings, but acknowledged that "a nuclear plant in Kansas should be prepared for a tornado. I wouldn't go as far to say Wolf Creek is not."

Despite the close calls, including the recent series of deadly tornadoes in the South and Midwest, a twister never has struck Wolf Creek, Stukey said.

NRC records show that those nuclear plants hit by a tornado have emerged largely unscathed:

—In June 2010, a tornado ripped off siding off a building housing emergency equipment and knocked out one of two power sources at the Fermi nuclear plant in Michigan. An alert was declared, and the plant was stabilized.

—Tornadoes struck the Quad Cities nuclear power plant in northwestern Illinois in 1990 and 1996. In 1990, the plant's security fence was damaged and the roof of one building blew onto a duct that connects the radioactive waste processing area to a venting stack. No radioactive gas was released. Six years later, a tornado damaged one of the unit's secondary containment structures, leading to an alert and shutdown.

—In 1998, a tornado hit the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio, causing significant damage to electrical distribution systems, sirens and other "unfortified" structures, according to the NRC. There were no adverse effects to public health and safety.

Similar problems occurred more recently at nuclear power plants in Virginia and Alabama in the path of tornadoes. After the twister at the Surry plant damaged a tanker truck used to fuel a backup generator, state officials were unsure whether the generator it supplied was needed to run emergency systems.

The utility called state officials seeking help, and a contractor supplied the plant with a fuel tanker.

"I personally do not want to be that close to disaster again," said Harry Colestock, the director of operations for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, in an email directing his staff to hold a follow-up meeting with the company, Dominion.

Dominon spokesman Jim Norvelle said an older fuel tanker was at the plant, but utility workers did not believe it could navigate the debris left by the tornado. The company is evaluating how it stores equipment and has agreed to supply a liaison to the state's emergency operations center upon request.

Just over a week later, tornadoes forced the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Ala., to shut down after severe weather wrecked transmission lines and created problems for a plant in Tennessee.

The storms also disrupted siren systems that alert residents living near nuclear power plants to trouble. The sirens, which are connected to the electrical grid, failed during a blackout. Tennessee Valley Authority officials said they are in the process of adding sirens that have battery backups, meaning they would work even during a power outage.

At one point, only 12 of 100 sirens in the communities surrounding Browns Ferry worked. A similar problem occurred in the region surrounding the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., which lost 36 of its 108 sirens. If there had been a crisis at either nuclear plant, emergency officials would have driven vehicles with loudspeakers through affected areas to alert residents.


Richard Heckler 3 years, 7 months ago

Nuclear Power Is Not Clean or Green!

No contemporary energy source is as environmentally irresponsible, imposes such a high liability on taxpayers, or is as dangerous as nuclear power. Industry efforts to "greenwash" nuclear energy make a mockery of clean energy goals. Although nuclear reactors do not emit carbon dioxide, promoting nuclear risks to reduce greenhouse emissions is the classic jump from the frying pan into the fire!

The Real Dirt on "Clean" Nuclear Energy

* The mining, milling and enrichment of uranium into nuclear fuel are extremely energy-intensive and result in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

* Estimated "energy recovery time" for a nuclear power plant is about 10 to 18 years, depending on the richness of uranium ores mined for fuel. This means that a nuclear power plant must operate for at least a decade before all the energy consumed to build and fuel the plant has been earned back and the power station begins to produce net energy. By comparison, wind power takes less than a year to yield net energy, and solar or photovoltaic power nets energy in less than three years.

* The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has calculated that collective radiation doses amounting to 12 cancer deaths can be expected for each 20-year term a reactor operates, as a result of radioactive emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle and routine reactor operations. This calculation assumes no unplanned accidents and does not consider radiation releases from high-level nuclear waste "disposal" activities. Nor are nonfatal health impacts related to radiation exposure counted in this tally.

* Thermal pollution from nuclear power plants adversely affects marine ecosystems. "Once-through" cooling systems in use at half the U.S. nuclear reactors discharge billions of gallons of water per day at temperatures up to 25 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the water into which it flows.

Richard Heckler 3 years, 7 months ago

Safety and Security Risks

* Nuclear power poses unique safety and security threats, relative to other sources of electricity. A severe accident or attack at a nuclear plant could be catastrophic.

* Accidents do happen, as history has taught us at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and, most recently, the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo, Ohio, which came dangerously close to disaster when acid corroded a hole in its reactor head.

Don’t forget reports that the al Qaeda terrorist organization considered an attack on a U.S. nuclear power station.

* The insurance industry won’t insure against nuclear power plant accidents. Nuclear power plant operators rely on a government-backed "Price-Anderson" insurance scheme that limits their liability in the event of an accident or attack.


duckedtapedemon 3 years, 7 months ago

You should probably update your little copy / paste to include the recent disaster in Japan when you list of other disasters.

eotw33 3 years, 7 months ago

Al Qaeda also has threats against football stadiums, so let's stop all football. Oh, and airports, so shut all those down. And more bridges. Also trains, subways, city centers, baseball games, the Olympics, pretty much anywhere there is people. Why don't we just go ahead and get rid of everyone in the world and then they won't have anyone to attack and we win!!!!

TopJayhawk 3 years, 7 months ago

Nuclear power is unecessary and completly stupid. It is NOT safe. The waste will last forever, and it's toxic threats as well. I'd much rather have dirty ol' coal than nuclear power. But once again, politics and the lying greenies have things bass-ackwards. IF we would just employ algea technology it would cut emissions by 25-40%. We can live with that. Ask the folks in Japan how they like their nuclear power now.... Why, it's so clean people all around the area had to move and you can't drink the water or eat the food. What a bargain.

Richard Heckler 3 years, 7 months ago

The Case for Renewables and Energy Efficiency

Public Citizen promotes increased reliance on wind, solar, and advanced hydroelectric, and argues that it is technically and economically feasible for a diverse mix of existing renewable technologies to completely meet U.S. energy needs over the coming decades.

These technologies can reliably generate as much energy as conventional fuels without significant carbon emissions, destructive mining, or the production of radioactive waste. Public Citizen also calls for increased investment in energy efficiency, particularly in geothermal heat pumps for buildings. Only through aggressive application of existing technologies - and investments in new ones - can the United States make the transition to clean and sustainable forms of energy production that will protect public health, the environment, and move us towards energy independence.

What Can You Do to Promote Alternatives?

Renewable Energy is Capable of Meeting Our Energy Needs

Richard Heckler 3 years, 7 months ago

Estimated "energy recovery time" for a nuclear power plant is about 10 to 18 years, depending on the richness of uranium ores mined for fuel.

This means that a nuclear power plant must operate for at least a decade before all the energy consumed to build and fuel the plant has been earned back and the power station begins to produce net energy.

By comparison, wind power takes less than a year to yield net energy, and solar or photovoltaic power nets energy in less than three years.

Richard Heckler 3 years, 7 months ago

Fact Sheet FS-163-97 October, 1997

Radioactive Elements in Coal and Fly Ash: Abundance, Forms, and Environmental Significance

Coal is largely composed of organic matter, but it is the inorganic matter in coal—minerals and trace elements— that have been cited as possible causes of health, environmental, and technological problems associated with the use of coal.

Some trace elements in coal are naturally radioactive. These radioactive elements include uranium (U), thorium (Th), and their numerous decay products, including radium (Ra) and radon (Rn).

Although these elements are less chemically toxic than other coal constituents such as arsenic, selenium, or mercury, questions have been raised concerning possible risk from radiation.

In order to accurately address these questions and to predict the mobility of radioactive elements during the coal fuel-cycle, it is important to determine the concentration, distribution, and form of radioactive elements in coal and fly ash.

Abundance of Radioactive Elements in Coal and Fly Ash

Assessment of the radiation exposure from coal burning is critically dependent on the concentration of radioactive elements in coal and in the fly ash that remains after combustion.

Data for uranium and thorium content in coal is available from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which maintains the largest database of infor-mation on the chemical composition of U.S. coal.

This database is searchable on the World Wide Web at: CoalQual/intro.htm.

Figure 1 displays the frequency distribution of uranium concentration for approximately 2,000 coal samples from the Western United States and approximately 300 coals from the Illinois Basin.

In the majority of samples, concentrations of uranium fall in the range from slightly below 1 to 4 parts per million (ppm). Similar uranium concentrations are found in a variety of common rocks and soils, as indicated in figure

  1. Coals with more than 20 ppm uranium are rare in the United States. Thorium concentrations in coal fall within a similar 1–4 ppm range, compared to an average crustal abundance of approximately 10 ppm. Coals with more than 20 ppm thorium are extremely rare.

During coal combustion most of the uranium, thorium, and their decay products are released from the original coal matrix and are distributed between the gas phase and solid combustion products.

Richard Heckler 3 years, 7 months ago

Scientific American

Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste

By burning away all the pesky carbon and other impurities, coal power plants produce heaps of radiation

By Mara Hvistendahl | December 13, 2007 |

Joshua Montgomery 3 years, 7 months ago

Winston Churchill once said: "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time"

Nuclear power is the worst viable form of continuous power generation, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time

Folks who oppose nuclear power do so because they don't understand relative risk, so let me explain it a little further.

All power generation facilities pose risk to both the environment, workers and the public.

Coal There is a 100% chance that coal power plants will pollute the atmosphere by emitting CO2, Radio-Active Cobalt-13, Sulfur, etc. There is a 100% chance that workers in coal mines will sustain fatal injuries. History has shown that approximately 30 mine workers are killed in the US each year. There is a 100% chance that commercially viable coal mining operations will significantly damage the environment immediately surrounding the coal mine. There is a 100% chance that increased severe weather events due to Global Warming will take lives in the United States. This year alone more than 600 people have been killed by the worst severe weather in recorded history.

Nuclear In the past 25 years there have been zero (0) deaths related to nuclear disasters. (Compared to thousands of coal mining deaths) I would argue that the deaths in Japan were earthquake related, not nuclear related. Calling these deaths nuclear related, would be like calling deaths in a school collapsed by the earthquake "teaching related". Chances that a nuclear plant will destroy usable land around it? 0.025%. Chances that a nuclear plant will cause global warming? 0%

The decision should not be made based on ABSOLUTE risk, rather it needs to be made based on the RELATIVE risk. Environmental advocates should support nuclear power as being safer for workers, safer for the environment and better, overall, than any of the viable alternatives. It carries less risk than all of the other options.

P.S. Wind & Solar are not currently commercially viable (cost per KWH). Neither is continuous.

P.P.S. Hydro-electric and Geothermal are, but only if you live in the proper geographic location.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 7 months ago

Joshua, you left out a few points: 1) There is 100% chance that radioactive tailings from uranium processing in order to create fuel for reactors will contaminate the environment where processing is or has occurred.

2) Both Chernobyl and Fukushima have resulted in citizen and worker illness and death related to the accidents. The actual numbers vary widely, but for Chernobyl the low end is 4,500 and it goes way higher than that for other accountings. Fukushima is still unfolding, but with radioactive releases continuing unabated, including heavy duty cesium contamination of the soil and untold radioactive releases into the ocean, a 50 mile evacuation zone and no end in sight, there will be widespread health issues similar in scope to the Chernobyl disaster. Note that much of this land within the 50 mile zone in Japan will likely be off limits for decades, hence flying in the face of your assertion of the low risk for land use destruction.

3) Your assertion that nukes don't contribute to global warming is based on limited scope and faulty assumptions. Firstly, there is a huge amount of energy expended in mining, processing fuel, plus transporting and storing spent fuel/contaminated materials. Secondly, as we are finding out with Fukushima, there is a huge amount of energy needed to contain an accident, with untold amounts of pressure being placed on underutilized coal fired plants put into duty to help take up the slack.

I don't think anyone at Tepco is interested in your conclusions about relative risks. They just cancelled plans for 14 nukes on the drawing board, are shutting down at least 2 currently running plants, and have fully committed to a truly renewable energy future.

Contrary to your assertion, wind and solar are the only things currently commercially viable. For the last 2 years, no coal or nuclear plants came online, while 10 GW of wind capacity was added in 2009 and 878 MW of solar was added in 2010.

Time to catch up on your assessment of risks and potentials, Joshua.

Joshua Montgomery 3 years, 7 months ago

Once again, it is about relative risk.

In the past 25 years (since Chernobyl). There has been 1 (one) emergency, caused by a freak natural event. 1/441 reactors = 0.25%

Chernobyl is a freak event caused by a rogue government. I would support your assertion that we shouldn't allow the construction of nuclear plants in rogue states (Syria, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, etc.)

Saying that wind/solar don't contribute to global warming has the same logical problem as saying that nuclear doesn't. It takes fossil fuels to mine the steel, rare earth elements & raw materials for solar/wind plants. It takes fossil fuels to move them to the job site. Fossil fuels run the trucks and cranes that assemble them, etc.

Relative to the pollution caused by coal: nuclear, wind and solar produce 0 global warming.

Nuclear has a Public Relations problem, not a science and safety problem. That is why these plants are being canceled.

I would also say that the environmental damage caused by tailings in a uranium mine is confined to a much smaller area than the damage caused by coal, oil and natural gas production and storage.

It is about RELATIVE damage, not SPECIFIC damage. Which one is better, not which one is perfect.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 7 months ago

I didn't say that wind/solar don't contribute to global warming due to construction of the equipment; you said that nukes don't contribute to global warming, which you must now agree was incorrect.

I cannot imagine how you can say that nuclear does not have a safety problem. Fukushima continues to spew radiation and will for months. This is not a public relations problem.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 7 months ago

If Fukushima is an an earthquake-related accident, then the ony alternative is to build nukes in outer space where there are no earthquakes, right?

Clickker 3 years, 7 months ago

C'mon....we cant live in the dark. Power needs to come from baseload supplies rather than swing supplies which are mostly what all the extremists are advocating. The problem with nuclear, if there is one, is in the fuel. For various reasons ( mostly military driven) the fuel of choice to feed our reactors is uranium. Thorium, which is basically dirt, is the answer to nuclear plants of the future. Had the Japanese used Thorium to fuel thier ill fated plants, they could be hosting picnics on the plant site right now with no ill effects

Ken Lassman 3 years, 7 months ago

There are other things besides the fuel that are a problem: cost and liability have shut down the industry for decades and after Fukushima, expect those costs to go up and once again make them difficult to compete with alternatives.

Everyone talks about Thorium, but nobody is building one--why is that? Because it is the existing huge nuclear industry that is driving the nukes "renaissance" and they have a huge investment in existing technology. The only problem: it's inherently unsafe, expensive and vulnerable to proliferation issues outside this country.

So I say go ahead with exploring the next generation of nukes, knowing that they may also be fundamentally flawed, but in the meantime, call for a moratorium on light water reactors and other current designs.

jafs 3 years, 7 months ago

It sounds to me as though the NRC is not being sufficiently rigorous.

hipper_than_hip 3 years, 7 months ago

The US gets 20% of our electricity from nuclear powered generation; are any of you ready to reduce your electricity use by 20%, or be willing to do without electricity for almost five hours a day?

jafs 3 years, 7 months ago

I am willing to bet that our household uses at least 20% less than the average American household, and we have all the modern conveniences.

If we can do it, everybody can do it, without suffering at all.

nut_case 3 years, 7 months ago

Ah, but those 'modern conveniences' didn't come from outer space. They were manufactured with 20% nuclear power - so you need to give up 1/5 of your gadgets. Give up 1/5 of your car, bike, scooter, 1/5 of your home furnishings, etc....or be willing to pay ~20% more for the stuff because cheap, clean power isn't available.

Using a 75 watt bulb instead of 100 doesn't make you 'green'.

jafs 3 years, 7 months ago

I said at least - it's probably much less than 20%.

One poster on here seems to use more than twice as much as we do, and he thinks he's not wasteful.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 7 months ago

Your perception on how to use 20% less electricity is creating an artificial barrier to accomplishing the goal. It's not like you hit the main circuit breaker and don't turn it back on until 5 hours have passed. There are many, many incremental ways to save energy throughout the day just be tweaking the way you do the same things you would otherwise do by using more energy. Kelly Barth even wrote about a group of friends who got together to share energy saving tips and a meal together once a month, and at the end of the year they had all cut back 20% on the average from the previous year's energy use, to no noticeable impairment of their lifestyles. Check out the article:

James Roper 3 years, 7 months ago

I'm not sure that "twister" is the best word choice in a headline for an article addressing such a serious concern.

Flap Doodle 3 years, 7 months ago

Pollution from internal combustion lawn mowers is more deadly than coal ash. Not banning internal combustion lawnmowers = dumb and irresponsible !!!!

Eride 3 years, 7 months ago

A lot of these "problems" they discuss in this article would occur if it were any other type of power plant. Which makes the argument here irrational. Does anyone think a coal plant wouldn't shutdown if it were struck by a tornado? In fact it would probably be swept away while the nuclear plant would at worst suffer minor damage and shutdown for an hour or two.

"Just over a week later, tornadoes forced the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Ala., to shut down after severe weather wrecked transmission lines and created problems for a plant in Tennessee."

Please tell how one would fortify the transmission lines from a plant? If the transmission lines of any type of plant are knocked out the plant has to shutdown.

The fear-mongering here is ridiculous.

eotw33 3 years, 7 months ago

Worldwide there are 442 nuclear power plants in operation. There have been a total of 34 accidents, 11 of those weren't even ranked and only 16 were/is considered serious. Coal on the other hand has caused more then 1,000 deaths in the US in the last 20 years and over 52,000 deaths in China in the last 10 years. This doesn't include all the deaths caused by lung disease, infection, fly ash etc. Nuclear power has caused 65 deaths. Also, I saved you approximately 10 minutes of reading by summarizing everything instead of using the Merrill method of copy, paste, annoy.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 7 months ago

65 deaths, eh? What are your sources, the soviet propaganda machine? Even the IAEA concluded in 2005 that up to 4,000 people will die due to causes directly attributable to radiation from Chernobyl, and you can find much, much higher estimates. Check it out:

Fukushima's 3 meltdowns plus one fuel pool disaster may end up churning out as much radiation as Chernobyl by the time it is contained, leaving a similar legacy. And this is no exaggeration--prove me wrong with some valid sources, please.

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