Questions raised about nuclear safety
April 4th, 2011
Omaha, NE – The aftermath of Japan’s recent nuclear crisis has left many in the United States questioning the overall safety of nuclear power plants across the country, including here in the heartland.
On March 17th, President Barack Obama made the announcement that in light of the recent radiation leaks at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Committee would conduct a comprehensive review on the safety of nuclear plants throughout the United States.
That review led to a hearing on March 29th before the Senate Energy Committee on nuclear safety and how to prevent an incident similar to Fukushima’s. Several expert panelists testified at the meeting, including David Lauchbaum, the Director of Nuclear Power Projects with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Lauchbaum voiced concerns about the similarities between many nuclear power plants within the U.S. and Fukushima.
“There are lessons that can and should be applied to lessen the vulnerabilities of U.S. reactors,” said Lauchbaum. “I cannot emphasize enough that the lessons from Japan apply to all U.S. reactors, not just the boiling water reactors like those affected at Fukushima. None are immune to station blackout problems, all should be made less vulnerable to those problems.”
One of those dangers, according to Lauchbaum, includes increases in potential power output increases at plants in the United States. The NRC has allowed stations to increase their output as long as they pass safety checks. One of the stations that recently requested to increase its power output is the Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo, Iowa. The plant has a GE Mark 1 reactor, a very similar design to that of the Fukushima Daiichi 1 Unit. That unit exploded and released radiation from the plant on March 13th as a result of complications brought on by Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami.
Over time, Iowa’s plant has increased its power output by 20 percent – a 15 percent increase came in 2001 alone. Viktoria Mitlyng is the Senior Public Affairs Officer for the Duane Arnold Energy Center. She said the increase approval process through the NRC is actually a lengthy one.
“It has to undergo a rigorous review process,” pointed out Mitlyng. “To the extent in which all of the necessary issues have been addressed, and the NRC is satisfied that the plant will continue to operate safely, permission is granted for a power upgrade.”
Some groups like the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards have voiced concerns at the ease in which the NRC grants permission to increase power. Questions have also been raised about financial motives possibly outweighing safety factors. But Mitlyng said modifications are put into place at the plants in order to accommodate the power increase in several forms.
“If you are increasing power by something like 15 to 20 percent, you are talking about increase in wear and tear on the equipment,” said Mitlyng. “There’s more vibration, more steam going through the pipes, the turbine is working harder, the cooling is working harder, backup safety systems need to be taken into account in case there is an unexpected dangerous condition. So, all of those conditions are taken into account.”
Fort Calhoun’s Nuclear Power plant in Nebraska is also currently planning a power increase, although its design is not the same as that of the GE Mark 1 reactor.
On April 28th, the Duane Arnold Energy Center will be holding its annual Plant Performance Assessment meeting. That meeting will be open to the public to give residents a chance to voice their concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants in their backyards.