Bottom line: if you live within 50 miles of the roughly 15 nuclear power plants that are close to active fault lines or hurricane prone coastal areas, you need to be extra-prepared in the event of a reactor meltdown – and move fast when the SHTF. 1/3 of Americans live within 50 miles of any nuclear power plant, and if you are one of them, you should also have a plan of action and iodide tablets.
On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi power plant began a series of failures in the wake of an earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Three of the six reactors suffered a meltdown and the situation is, nearly four years later, still ongoing and barely contained. The Fukushima disaster became the second largest nuclear disaster in human history, topped only by the Chernobyl power plant meltdown of April 1986.
The purpose of this threat assessment is to consider the chances of a similar “Level 7” event occurring again, specifically in the United States, and describe steps to take to prepare for that event.
First, let’s look at the two previous disasters, in broad-strokes.
Chernobyl – design flaw and human error. This plant had been operating for over 2 years with a major safety flaw. The backup power generators needed a couple minutes to spin up to full power, leading to a critical period of time during which the entire plant would be at risk of meltdown in the event that it needed to be taken offline. A somewhat ill conceived solution was put into place, in which the decelerating turbine of the shutting down plant would be used to generate electricity as a stop gap measure until the generators came online. Some communication errors between various plant personnel and regulatory scientists compounded the issue, as did a lack of automatic controls over the majority of the fuel rods (all but 12 had to be manually removed from the water) None of these factors on their own would have resulted in an accident – but together, they spelled disaster. In fact, this article from the time indicates that Soviet officials point to no more 6 human errors as the cause.
Fukushima – poor location, design flaw, human error. “The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission found the nuclear disaster was “manmade” and that its direct causes were all foreseeable. The report also found that the plant was incapable of withstanding the earthquake and tsunami.” (Wikipedia) There were a number of oversights leading up to the disaster, including falsified safety records, ignored tsunami warnings and issues with flooding – all of which became critical factors when the sea wall was breached by giant waves and all but one of the backup generators became flooded – leaving one generator unable to power the plant’s automatic cooling systems.
Do these two sound oddly familiar? Entirely different times and cultures, same general problems: human errors and design flaws, ignored safety protocols, culminating in an unlucky day.
When we think about whether these types of events could happen again, here in the US or elsewhere even, let’s start with the issues that caused disasters in the past.
1) Human Error: simply put, there is no way to measure whether this factor can ever be eliminated from any system, so it must always be considered to be present. When it comes to Level 1-4 issues at power plants, human error is almost always the culprit. It is such an issue that many NRC studies have been devoted to it, articles written in industry magazines, and the general consensus from the mainstream press is “Nuclear accidents will happen: human error can’t ever be eliminated”
2) Design Flaws: had Fukushima not happened so recently, one might be inclined to say that catastrophic design flaws were a thing of the past. One might then point to Daiichi however and say that design flaws weren’t so much the issue as the poor choice of location – it is on an island located on the Ring of Fire, a volcanic, earthquake and tsunami prone part of the world the might not be suitable for any nuclear power plants, anywhere, let alone on the coast. The main flaw in this argument is that it ignores how precarious nuclear power reactors are when not in the absolute ideal operating conditions. Simply sabotaging the water intake with say, a stick of dynamite, would result in immediate shutdown of the power plant in the best case scenario, or discover some critical weakness in the safety protocol in the worst.
But let’s assume the best case scenario: the plants are well designed, safety and maintenance is at its peak, and you have no army of terrorists worldwide to attack your power grid structure. Even in that scenario, the power plants themselves are way past their originally designed shelf life. In the United States more than half are past 30 years old, but Europe and even Japan have aging reactors.
Of particular concern are the 23 reactors in the United States that are of the same design as the ones currently failing in Japan — the General Electric Mark 1.
Most Mark 1’s came online between 1972 and 1978, making them nearly 40 years old.
Critics say its containment box is too small and its walls are too thin. They also say the waste storage pools, situated several stories above the ground over the main reactor and outside a key containment vessel, are vulnerable to terrorist attack or meltdown.
So design flaws are still inherent, even in “modern’ power plants.
3) Poor Location: Fukushima Daiichi was overwhelmed by waves created by an earthquake. Tsunamis are a threat to the United States, as shown by this map from USGS:
California has several power plants that are close to the ocean, but none directly in harms warm except for perhaps Diablo Canyon. That being said, many speculate that an East Coast or even Gulf Coast tsunami could occur. In addition to the current plants, there are 26 applications to build new power plants, and some of the “candidate Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) sites may be located on coasts subject to tsunamis hazard.“
Tsunamis aside, more troubling are their cause: earthquakes. Unpredictable and yet totally inevitable along fault lines, earthquakes are only going to increase as hydro-fracturing or fracking sites continue to destabilize the tectonic plates in key fault line regions. Take a (shocked) look at this handy chart of the overlap of nuclear power plants with the USGS assessment of fault line based earthquake probability, and the amount of structural damage caused by earthquakes in each area will be
This map presents the position of the US nuclear reactors (Reuters and NRC) superimposed on a map of the earthquake risk as measured by “Peak Ground Acceleration” (PGA) which matches with that of the US fault lines (USGS).
The map tells the tale:
- 23 US plants are presently using a Mark 1 (boiling water reactors) reactor, the same technology which was involved in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. All are in the eastern half of the country (source).
- There are also eight nuclear power plants located along the seismically active West coast.
- Twelve of the American reactors that are of the same vintage as the Fukushima Daiichi plant are in seismically active areas.
The PGA risk is what is typically used to set building codes. Most nuclear power plants are designed to operate under 0.2g PGA, and automatically shut off if the PGA exceeds 0.2g.
So chances are, there will eventually be an earthquake that sets off a power plant. How high are the chances and what power plants are we talking about?
The following nuclear power plants have a two percent or greater chance of having PGA over 0.15g in the next 50 years:
• Diablo Canyon, Calif.
• San Onofre, Calif.
• Sequoyah, Tenn.
• H.B. Robinson, SC.
• Watts Bar, Tenn.
• Virgil C. Summer, SC.
• Vogtle, GA.
• Indian Point, NY.
• Oconee, SC.
• Seabrook, NH.
So 2% or greater (which doesn’t indicate how much greater of course). In the ideal scenario, the plant will shutdown, cooling measures will be automatically applied to the reactors and backup power will ensure everything operates smoothly.
But when combined with a little human error and design flaws … ?
Coming Soon – Part II: What You Should Do to Prepare
How close do you live to a nuclear reactor? Here is a handy tool for finding out based on your address.
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