Not just Japan's problem

March 16, 2011

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I remember the first nuclear power plant I ever saw—the Byron Nuclear Generating Station located in Ogle County, Ill., two miles east of the Rock River. Construction began in 1975, and Units 1 and 2 became operational in 1985 and 1987 respectively. The project was rife with controversy.

The plant loomed large on the horizon, and I never passed it without glancing over and marveling at how eerie it appeared to me—like something from another world. 

I no longer live/drive near the plant, but I’m reminded of the days when I did—and the controversy— as I watch the horrific events unfolding in Japan.

Hollywood disaster movies pale in comparison to the real-life destruction and continuing drama Japan is experiencing. When we watch movies, we often are required to suspend our disbelief—to imagine that the unbelievable can occur. What's happening in Japan may be beyond belief, but it's very real, and we need to remember that the worst disasters imaginable can and do happen and try to plan accordingly. 

What are the odds of similar disasters happening in the U.S.? Should you be worried about meltdowns and leaks if an earthquake damages any of the 104 atomic power plants located here?

As noted in an article published today on msnbc.com, "the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has calculated the odds of an earthquake causing catastrophic failure to a nuclear plant here. Each year, at the typical nuclear reactor in the U.S., there's a 1 in 74,176 chance that the core could be damaged by an earthquake, exposing the public to radiation. No tsunami required. That's 10 times more likely than you winning $10,000 by buying a ticket in the Powerball multistate lottery, where the chance is 1 in 723,145.

"And it turns out that the nuclear reactor in the United States with the highest risk of core damage from a quake is not the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, with its twin reactors tucked between the California coastline and the San Andreas Fault.

"It's not the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a four-hour drive down the Pacific coast at San Clemente, surrounded by fault lines on land and under the ocean.

"It's not on the Pacific Coast at all. It's on the Hudson River." 

The article goes on to list the 10 nuclear power plants with the highest risk of suffering core damage from an earthquake. It also notes that the NRC, the federal agency responsible for nuclear power safety, says the odds are in the public’s favor.

I suppose that's comforting, if you're a betting man or woman. Wonder what the odds were in Japan?

Published today on wnyc.org is an article that addresses questions being raised about U.S. plants that have the same design as the damaged plant in Fukushima. According to the article, 23 of the nation’s plants are General Electric boiling water reactors—the same design as the one in Fukushima. And it appears there is plenty of controversy about whether the design is deficient.  

The nuclear issue is a hot topic and will continue to be, as it has been for decades—at least for some. For the past 30 years, Concepcion Picciotto, 65, has kept vigil outside the White House speaking out against nuclear weapons. I saw Picciotto there on my trip to Washington D.C. in February. Among her signs was one about Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst-ever nuclear accident.

The article "Chernobyl 25 Years Later Becomes Japan's Lesson on Meltdown," published on bloomberg.com, describes the Chernobyl incident and compares it to what's happening today in Fukushima. "The Chernobyl reactor was not so protected as the Japanese reactors are; it did not have the metal protection," said Volodymyr Omelchenko, an energy analyst at the Razumkov Center for Political and Economical Studies in Kiev. "Also, the explosion was much stronger at Chernobyl than at Fukushima, the system of protection as well as system of cooling were worse at Chernobyl."

According to Omelchenko, the incident at Fukushima is more a reminder of the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, which stemmed from an electrical or mechanical failure. No earthquake required.

Reading the latest headlines, I’m wondering if Omelchenko will change his mind in the coming days. I hope he doesn't have to. And I hope the engineers who design nuclear reactors are working to understand the potential problems and rectify them everywhere. The last thing I ever want to read in my lifetime is another report comparing nuclear disasters.

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