Friday, June 17, 2011

Nebraska nuclear reactor dry though surrounded by flood

Nebraska nuclear reactor dry though surrounded by flood

The Fort Calhoun nuclear power station in Nebraska remains shut down due to Missouri River flooding, but the plant itself has not flooded and is expected to remain safe, the federal government said Friday.

The rising river "has certainly affected the site, but the plant itself, the actual reactor is still dry," said Scott Burnell, Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman.

The 478-megawatt plant north of Omaha shut April 9 to refuel, and has remained shut because of the flooding, said Omaha Public Power District spokesman Jeff Hanson.

When you read something like this, is it meant to inform the public. Or is it meant to reassure the pubic? Not that a news story can't do both sometimes. But, you have to wonder which way the balance tilts when push really comes to shove. This article is based entirely on sources at the power company and the NRC. The reporter certainly got lots of reassurance from these sources. But, the question remains in the back of my mind as to whether the reporter would have gotten important information the public needs to know if it wasn't reassuring? Which comes first, reassurance or informing?

There's so much reassurance in here that its actually hard to spot the important pieces of information. Here's what I see buried in this story.

1) The reactor was shut down for refueling on April 9th. That's the best news you could get about a nuclear reactor upwind of you. That it has been shut down. In this case, it means the large reservoir of heat that sits at the core of a nuclear reactor, and which needs constant cooling, has had two months to dissipate. That's probably the biggest difference between this site and Fukushima. Fukushima was running up until the moment the earthquake alarms went off, and thus was at full heat.

BTW, do you notice in this Reuters piece that the word "Fukushima" isn't even mentioned? Really? A major incident at a nuclear plant just months after Fukushima, and yet the word doesn't even make it in to this news report. You'd think at least they'd be reassuring people that it isn't another Fukushima. But, apparently that's the word that can no longer be spoken.

2) One scary fact is that they are having to do additional earth moving to provide flood protection. That's rather hidden in this story. There's a very odd paragraph that begins with a fact about the ownership of the power plant. The first time I read it, my eyes glazed over and I guess I assumed the rest of the paragraph was boring stuff like that. But, no, after that first sentence, the paragraph jumps sideways into telling you that there are people on the site building emergency dikes to keep the water away from important areas. The fact that crews are out there racing against time and rising flood waters to build dikes around the sensetive areas of a nuclear power plant is presented in such a boring fashion as to provoke yawns. Until you realize that you should be cheering the fact that this was completed before the flood waters got that high.

What I would rather have heard was that the site was originally designed to stay above these flood waters. I'm glad they got their emergency dike up in time. But, I'd rather that a site next to a river have been designed with enough prudence and forethought that such an emergency dike wasn't even needed.

3) After Fukushima, you'd think reporters would know to at least ask the right questions? Does the plant still have off-site power to power the control rooms and cooling pumps? Apparently yes. But its very understated in this article. I'm guessing the 'switch yard' protected by the dike is a key part of this, but its hard to tell. The second question would concern the emergency diesel generators that would need to power the pumps should the off-site power be lost. Deep in a quote from an NRC spokesperson you see that extra earthworks have been completed to protect these important generators.

What they don't tell you is that this is still scary as to how close this plant can come to having a Fukushima in Missouri. If the plant had been operating, instead of being shut down for scheduled refueling, that connection to off-site power and those diesel generators are all that stands between safety and another Fukushima in America's heartland. The heat in a nuclear reactor must be dissipated away. Cooling water propelled by electric pumps provide this capacity. Diesel generators are the backup to this system. If both systems fail, then the reactor core is no longer cooled. When the reactor is no longer being cooled, the temperature rises quickly and very quickly the reactor component start to melt.

We've now been told what was already obvious. That the reactor cores at Fukushima melted within hours of the earthquake/tsunami. This is what happened. The cooling pumps failed when they lost power. The reactor quickly overheated without the cooling water, and the cores were melting within hours.

Its good news that this isn't happening right now in Missouri. The best news was that the reactor was already shut down. That's the safest state for a nuclear reactor. For the safety of all downwind, it should stay that way. If that wasn't true, then you'd better be praying hard that some hastily constructed temporary dikes and sandbags keep the flood water away from the key components which keep the reactor core from melting.

Oh, by the way, the refueling cycle of a nuclear reactor is about 18 months I believe. That means, this reactor will probably be up and running during next year's late spring flood season along the Missouri. And for a fair number of the rainy seasons to come. Hope they keep the sandbags handy. The bad news is that something only has to go wrong once.

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