Decades without a major catastrophe and growing interest in low-carbon energy sources brought the nuclear power industry within grasp of a renaissance in recent years as utilities from San Antonio to China looked to nukes as the solution to energize 21st-century population growth.
That momentum halted on March 11, when a 8.9-magnitude earthquake triggered a monster tsunami that both knocked out primary power to a nuclear power complex along Japan’s northeast coast and washed out the backup generators, causing a series of explosions, fires, radiation leaks, and, possibly, meltdowns within most of the six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear complex. While more than 11,000 people are confirmed dead following the tsunami, no fatalities have yet been linked to radiation exposure. But with some radionuclides, like Cesium-137, persisting in the environment for decades, we’ll likely be hearing about it for a long time to come.
San Antonio’s CPS Energy was among the first utilities worldwide to postpone new or expanded nuclear power while the situation in Japan unfolded. As unprecedented video of explosions and fires related to overheated reactors was broadcast live on smart phones and televisions, America’s nuclear power industry suddenly seemed a lot like Sisyphus watching his boulder tumbling down the mountain.
But the industry is comprised of some resilient people who sincerely believe that nuclear power is not as bad as it looks today. Just like Vanity Fair’s famous atheist scribe Christopher Hitchens — who insisted he would have no deathbed conversion in spite of his cancer diagnosis last year — the nuclear industry is unwaveringly committed to its work.
To understand this mindset, spend some time reading Hiroshimasyndrome.com’s Fukushima coverage. The blog, popular among industry insiders, says it exists to end myths about the dangers of nuclear power and change negative perceptions lingering from atomic bombs dropped during World War II. On Sunday, the site’s author breathlessly described his frustration with Tokyo Electric Power Co. for incorrectly reporting that radiation levels around the plant were 10 million times higher than normal. Hiroshimasyndrome.com never got around to mentioning that the correct estimate, though lower, was still 100,000 times above normal levels.
The PR mistake by TEPCO, the anonymous author wrote, was an act of “informational disaster.”
“All prudent efforts must be made to improve news media and public confidence in TEPCO press statements, but this has surely brought confidence in TEPCO information to a new low,” the author, a self-described former nuclear PR rep and high school science teacher, wrote. “Up until now, TEPCO’s press statements have been relatively thin with respect to content, but they’re (sic) information has ultimately proved correct.”
If this is a major voice within the nuclear science community, the industry may want to find some new press agents. It sounds like the author is criticizing TEPCO for diminishing the industry’s ability to spin its safety narrative during a radioactive crisis. Meanwhile, 18,000 people were still missing from the tsunami disaster, and the Japanese government is expanding the severity of evacuation recommendations while urging survivors to stay indoors and avoid consumption of now-contaminated food and water supplies.
The chaotic situation is especially surreal for South Texans because CPS Energy, TEPCO, and potentially the Japanese government itself, were among investors lined up to fund expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear complex near Bay City. A partnership between NRG Energy, Toshiba, and federal contractor Shaw Group (in charge of maintenance at STP), were preparing to construct two advanced boiling water reactors (ABWR) at the South Texas Project nuclear complex where CPS already owns 40 percent of STP reactors 1 and 2. CPS Energy planned to invest 7.6 percent in proposed reactors 3 and 4, but the utility said on March 21 that it had indefinitely postponed talks with reactor owner NRG Energy.
“Terminating discussions with NRG allows us to devote more resources in pursuit of the other options,” said CPS Energy President and CEO Doyle Beneby. “When the development of STP 3 and 4 moves forward again, our present ownership interest will remain unchanged.”
In the meantime, San Antonio will continue drawing a large portion of its energy from STP’s 1 and 2 reactors. Those facilities, which came online in 1988 and 1989, also happen to be up for a 20-year renewal by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Without the renewal, the reactors would close in 2027 and 2028. April 1 is the deadline for the public to tell the NRC how it feels about the renewal, which, oddly enough, won’t take place for another 20 years. In spite of the Fukushima incident, insiders believe the renewal will go forward, especially because San Antonio can’t afford to lose more base-load capacity. By 2018, CPS Energy officials hope to retire a coal plant representing 850 megawatts of power.
STP’s Safety Record
STP is also highly regarded within the nuclear and safety industries for its excellent safety record in recent years.
“Safety is the primary commitment,” said STP spokesman Buddy Eller. “It’s one of our core values. We put safety over production every time.”
In November, EHS Today, an environmental health and safety magazine, recognized STP for excellence in safety. In 2010, STP was among 89 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors to receive the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s highest honor for “fully meeting all safety cornerstone objectives,” according to Power Magazine. However, the publication also noted that the same high-level safety award went to the Vermont Yankee unit, a controversial reactor whose re-licensing was opposed by the Vermont Senate due to leaks of radioactive tritium and the partial collapse of the plant’s aged cooling tower.
Texas’ anti-nuclear activists say STP also has a history of safety problems and nagging maintenance issues with tritium releases and stuck fuel rods (caused by modern retrofits not working properly with old infrastructure). Critics say reactor operators and the NRC continue to let these issues slide because the agency’s enforcement process is too forgiving. While the NRC defended STP’s safety record, saying the most recent assessment of the plant placed it in the lowest tier for potential safety risk of all U.S. reactors, opponents are critical of the practice of using “resident inspectors” at STP and beyond — a process they say breeds safety complacency as the relationship between federal employees and site workers becomes too cozy.
“There’s a lot of lip service paid to safety,” said Susan Dancer, an activist whose husband works at the plant. “If everyone’s bonus is tied to the number of people who get hurt, there’s a disincentive to report problems.”
In a recent report, the Union of Concerned Scientists brought attention to 14 “near-misses” at nuclear reactors across the country, largely the result of plant personnel and NRC inspectors failing to properly address long-term maintenance and safety issues. While the Concerned Scientists’ report actually praised STP for its dedication to safety and willingness to report reactor and maintenance problems, a Current review of the most recent inspection reports shows that even STP benefitted when NRC inspectors observed Security Level IV violations, yet avoided citing the operator when plant employees failed to report fire hazards and safety system failures. NRC spokeswoman Lara Uselding said those reporting violations did not warrant citation under enforcement policy.
“Their history is incredibly troubled,” said Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition, which recently filed a petition on behalf of Dancer to object to the license extension for the STP 1 and 2 reactors.
The petition claims the STP fails to show how it will deal with fires and explosions that cause a loss of large areas of the plant. An STP spokesman said reactor operators regularly train teams among its 1,200 employees to respond to fires. The plant also receives backup support from volunteer fire departments in Matagorda County and Bay City. Neither one of those departments happened to have on-duty staff available when a reporter called seeking comment on Friday.
“We conduct drills at least once a year, sometimes twice, so we feel the plant is prepared for an emergency,” said Matagorda County Emergency Management Coordinator Doug Matthes. “What happened in Japan can’t happen here because our generators are water-tight.”
The sobering situation in Japan raises questions about whether STP’s two Westinghouse pressurized water reactors — located in Matagorda County 10 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico — could succumb to a similar crisis if major hurricanes were to cause a storm surge. The plant’s operators and nuclear industry experts say that is unlikely.
“You couldn’t expect anything close to what you see in Japan,” said Pavel Tsvetkov, a nuclear engineering professor and safety expert at Texas A&M University. “While the Japanese plant was immediately near the ocean, the STP plant is substantially inland.”
STP spokesman Buddy Eller said the five-foot-thick, bunker-like concrete reactor domes reinforced with steel are able to withstand hurricane Category 5 winds and a 41-foot storm surge. Also, he said, STP boasts one of the world’s few triple-redundant backup systems with multiple water pumps and six 5.5-megawatt diesel backup generators. “We’re built to withstand a worst-case scenario involving a hurricane with combined wind and a 100-year flood along that Colorado River,” Eller said. “That analysis puts the storm surge at 26 feet, and we’re located at 29 feet above sea level.”
Where the variety of back-up generators are based caused some disagreement among the parties. During an initial interview last week, Eller said backup systems were located above ground, though he was unsure how high they were situated. Hadden and others familiar with the facility said some of the generators are actually located three feet below ground. And the NRC’s Uselding said the generators “located at ground level,” were enhanced five years ago with nine-inch-thick, water-tight doors, and are routinely tested against a fire hose. However, one underground generator was damaged in April 2002 during a heavy rainstorm. At the time of the flood, the water-tight concrete walls had been moved for maintenance, Hadden said.
When asked to clarify whether the systems are indeed located below ground, Eller said: “The safety systems are located in different locations throughout each unit. They are completely independent, separate systems and are all designed to withstand flooding, storm surges, fires, and seismic events.”
Matthes said he was not aware that some systems might be located below ground.
Backup generators have been especially prone to problems at STP and other reactors across the country, according to the activists who regularly review inspection reports available on the NRC website. One generator was down last August after a circuit breaker failed, Hadden said.
David Crane, president and CEO of NRG Energy, said in a prepared statement last week that, “It is not obvious to us that any modifications are necessary to regulatory requirements applicable to either our existing or planned nuclear facilities.”
Activists say assurances are cheap talk for an industry that has had multiple near-misses in recent years. As the Japanese incident demonstrated, the public will become increasingly distrustful when calls to remain calm are followed by warnings that tap water contains radiation levels unsafe for infants.
“What happened in Japan was extraordinary – a really unbelievable tsunami,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “The biggest threat to STP would be an extraordinary wave.”
STP had prepared to power down in 2008, when Hurricane Ike was headed toward Matagorda County before veering north.
The storm made landfall just one mile per hour under Category 3 strength near the Texas-Louisiana border. In spite of its rating, Ike sent storm surge more than 10 miles inland, destroying whole swaths of Sabine Pass, Orange, and Bridge City. Many of the coastal communities that sustained about three feet of flood water from storm surge in 2005’s Hurricane Rita were obliterated by a much higher wall of water from Hurricane Ike.
“Global warming adds to the threat from hurricanes that could impact the South Texas Project,” Smith said. Along with more gradual sea-level rise, which would take out the barrier islands protecting the Texas coast, climate change is expected to also bring stronger hurricanes in its wake.
Ike knocked out power to 3 million customers, causing the largest blackout of electric transmission in Texas history. Many customers along the coast were without electric transmission lines for months. Water inundated cattle pastures for miles inland from the Gulf.
As Hurricanes Ike, Katrina, and Rita demonstrated, it can be impossible to transport diesel fuel for generators when roads are covered in water. And it’s when a reactor can’t pump water to cool itself — much less the pool of highly toxic spent nuclear fuel stored onsite at STP — that problems like meltdowns and radioactive fuel fires can occur. However, STP’s Eller said each of the six backup generators has seven days of fuel in reserve, so each reactor potentially has 21 days of fuel on site.
Dancer said the Fukushima incident demonstrates that no matter what scenario authorities consider, they can never predict every possible worst-case event. Other threats to STP include airplane crashes involving terrorists, low levels in the cooling reservoir, or potential land subsidence due to the area’s numerous salt domes.
Though Dancer’s husband’s job affords the couple a comfortable lifestyle, she says she feels compelled to keep pressure on STP operators because too few in the community are willing to speak up.
“When we started in this industry in the 1980s, we were driving around a huge pickup,” she said. “But times have changed. We now drive a Prius. Just because you were once pro-nuclear doesn’t mean you have to be pro-nuclear expansion.”
Public Comments about STP’s license renewal application are being accepted until April 1. A draft Environmental Impact Statement is scheduled to be released in March 2012. Comments may be submitted online at regulations.gov (search docket NRC-2010-0375), or mailed to:
Cindy Bladey, Chief, Rules, Announcements and Directives Branch (RADB)
Division of Administrative Services, Office of Administration, Mail Stop: TWB-05-B01M
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, D.C. 20555-0001
Faxed comments should be sent to (301) 492-3446.