Explosions in Japan have some questioning safety of nuclear power plants

March 14, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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(Getty/Scott Olson)
Illinois has several nuclear reactors of the same design as those in Japan.

Updated at: 2:49 pm on 3/14/2011

As if the one-two punch from last week’s earthquake and tsunami weren’t enough to deal with, another element stands to rock Japan’s core: a nuclear meltdown. Authorities at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant are racing to cool overheated reactors with sea water to avoid a meltdown. Illinois is home to 11 nuclear reactors, several of the same age and design as those in Japan.

Eight Forty-Eight spoke to Rick Zuffa who supervises the resident inspector program run by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Zuffa explained that all American plants are designed to meet the specifications set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission but that each plant has its own unique engineering features and economics.

Of the 11 reactors in Illinois, three are no longer operating and one is inactive. The state began its program with a boiling-water reactor at the first Dresden Station. In the 1970s, a different design—pressurized water reactors—came into vogue, beginning with Zion Station. All nuclear reactors are designed according to specifications set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Among the elements the commission monitors, it looks for features related to the emergency-core cooling systems and human compatibility for on and off-site employees.

After the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1980, then-Governor Jim Thompson organized a monitoring system for Illinois' nuclear reactors, comprised of engineers and health physics personnel. The group could then actively monitor nuclear plants and respond on the state’s behalf to make recommendations to the public for their health and safety in the event of an emergency. At that time, as Zuffa explained, if Illinois was instead a country, it would have been the sixth largest nuclear power generator in the world.

IMEA monitors the state’s nuclear facilities using, among other gauges, a Reactor Data Link. The computer system monitors over 2,000 points—water level, temperature, radiation levels—which provide certain parameters that would suggest if a reactor’s conditions are degrading.

“If there are trends that suggest that the integrity of a nuclear station is starting to waiver, we have an early warning system basically,” Zuffa said.

There is a memorandum of understanding, Zuffa explained, which dictates that a degreed engineer, knowledgeable in the operation of nuclear plants and emergency response, be on site during emergencies. That person is expected to help perform on-site inspections and turn any findings over to inspectors and the Regulatory Commission.

Should an emergency occur, which Zuffa noted is rare, the licensee that operates the facility would call the IMEA Communication Center in Springfield which would in turn page out its reporting personnel. The threat is evaluated by the IMEA’s Radiological Emergency Assessment Center. In increasing levels of gravity, the event, is determined to be one of four emergency action levels—unusual event, alert, site-area emergency or a general emergency. During a general emergency, which means that there is a release of nuclear material, the REAC would provide its evaluation and suggested response for a county in the form of an emergency notification recommendation.

The last major earthquake in the region occurred along the New Madrid fault line centered in the early 19th century. “They say that the quake was so loud it rang church bells in Boston and caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards; that’s pretty phenomenal,” Zuffa remarked. But before a nuclear facility is erected, seismic activity is taken into account. All locations must meet site criteria determined by the NRC; Zuffa calls them, “earth, wind, fire and water.”

The site criteria evaluate seismic activity in the area, wind factors and the likelihood of a tornado in the area. There is a tremendous amount of fire equipment, a redundancy Zuffa says, which allows fires to be put out and recognized quickly by the dedicated on-site fire-fighting brigade. Typically sites are kept far from flood plains but there are contingencies, such as diesel and remote-operated pumps, in place should a flood occur.