Saturday, May 28, 2011

'Tornado Alley' reactor not fully twister-proof


WASHINGTON — 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 plan 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, an 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.

Storms disabled Browns Ferry sirens

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 destroyed a fuel tanker used to refuel 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.

Tornadoes recently 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. TVA 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.

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