- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

SHIPPINGPORT, Pa. (AP) - At the fortified entrance of FirstEnergy’s Beaver Valley nuclear power plant - before submitting to the background check, the metal detectors, the puffer machines and the scan of all personal belongings - employees and visitors pass by an LED sign displaying what could be any workplace safety platitude: “Low risk is not the same thing as no risk.”

But here, the birthplace of commercial nuclear power, the words carry particular significance, underscoring the U.S. nuclear industry’s philosophy shift in the four years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that devastated the Fukushima nuclear complex required a soul-searching refinement of risk and a reassessment of preparedness for an industry that has always prided itself on rigid security measures.

“It was never believed that there was anything else you’d have to do,” said Tim Green, a project manager at Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station, where he is overseeing the plant’s post-Fukushima upgrades. Redundant safety protocols and stringent regulations have always been part of getting a government license, he said.

“But what Fukushima showed us is that there’s always something you don’t think about that takes away that last thing you’re gonna want.”

At Beaver Valley, which sits a mere 34 miles from Pittsburgh’s city center, FirstEnergy is in the initial stages of rolling out more than two dozen safety recommendations drawn up by both industry and federal regulators after the Fukushima accident. The Akron, Ohio-based company owns three nuclear plants.

While requiring preventative measures such as reassessments of seismic and flooding hazards, the plan’s centerpiece addresses how operators respond in the immediate aftermath of any conceivable natural disaster.

“No matter what the issue is, don’t worry about what caused it - assume you’ve lost pretty much everything,” Green explained. “Now how are you going to cope going forward?”

Glued to the news

Like most in the nuclear business, Paul Harden can vividly recall watching the Fukushima accident unfold on television.

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan triggered a tsunami 45 feet high. The wave barreled through the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, knocking out power, and washing its backup generators and other critical equipment to sea. The loss of power disrupted cooling mechanisms and the reactions began to heat up to dangerous levels.

Nuclear power plants need constant electrical power to run systems that keep cool its ever-warming reactors and used fuel depositories.

“I was glued to the news to try to figure out what was happening and how well the plants were holding up,” said Harden, who at that time was site vice president of Beaver Valley.

Three Fukushima reactors eventually overheated and exploded, releasing a significant amount of radioactive material - about a tenth of that released in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster that killed 28 workers in present-day Ukraine.

Harden said he immediately went to work in Shippingport.

Within a week, Beaver Valley employees were inspecting flood and seismic protections and other critical infrastructure at the plant. Harden tried to glean some early analysis on what had gone wrong in Japan from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an Atlanta-based group founded by the industry after the Three Mile Island accident in Dauphin County in 1979 for the purpose of sharing operational practices and setting performance objectives.

“We asked the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations to be the coordinator, to help get the right technical brain-trust of the industry together to determine what we can do in this country to avoid such a tragedy,” he said.

The industry prides itself on moving more quickly than its regulators. When the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission finalized a near-term list of recommendations the following March, Harden said, many of them simply codified what the industry was already doing.

Yet the core principle in both assessments was the same, and addressed the key problem behind Fukushima’s meltdown: When a nuclear plant loses all power, how do operators keep it cool?

Beyond the design

A turbine generator, a lighting and ventilation system, two mounted fuel tanks and a diesel-powered water pump - the components of a jury-rigged system of power and cooling - sat on display at Beaver Valley last week.

Dwarfed by the plant’s two reactor units and respective cooling towers and with trailer hookups attached to each, their compact size and broad utility is the point, Green said.

“The operators won’t have to think of everything from scratch,” Green said, explaining that the new equipment added another layer of backup should the plant’s power fail along with all four of its room-sized backup diesel generators. Beaver Valley’s system of batteries can run power to the plant for up to 20 hours, he said.

The equipment, part of a strategy dubbed “FLEX” because of its flexibility to assist first responders in any scenario, is the bread and butter of the post-Fukushima response, nuclear operators say. Such backup equipment is being deployed to multiple locations, both in protected storage compounds on site and at newly opened national response centers in Memphis and Phoenix, available to be airlifted by helicopters to any nuclear plant in the country within 24 hours.

If water is needed to cool the plant, Green showed how operators can run down to the nearby Ohio River - the plant is situated well above the water, even during the river’s flood stage - and send water up through underground pipes to a valve protected by a concrete bunker.

FLEX addresses the challenge - and inherent futility - of attempting to prepare for the unexpected. It puts the emphasis on providing power, and therefore water, to the plant during what regulators call “beyond-design-basis” events, a term that became more prominent after Fukushima, according to NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.

“The idea was always focused on design basis, that these plants were designed to cope with accidents,” Sheehan said. “What we learned from Fukushima is … there are events that could affect plants in ways that are not previously understood.”

A Japanese investigation later found the Fukushima disaster to have been “profoundly man-made” by a lack of emergency preparedness and lax safety culture at the plant. Assessments following Three Mile Island and Chernobyl also pointed to human error and mechanical failure.

In general, the industry has shown a “high level of compliance” with the NRC’s post-Fukushima guidelines, which were intentionally broad so that each individual plant has drawn up its own plan to satisfy them, Sheehan said.

Plants must carry out their plans either by the end of 2016 or within two scheduled outages for refueling, whichever comes first. FirstEnergy will finish the Beaver Valley modifications this fall when the plant’s Unit 2 reactor is scheduled for an outage. The Unit 1 reactor will be upgraded the following fall.

The NRC will visit the plant in July to perform an audit of FirstEnergy’s plan, then do a follow-up inspection in the spring of 2017 once modifications in both reactors are complete, Green said.

Necessary redundancy

Sometimes regulations lead to significant administrative costs and burden, Harden said, such as the lengthy process of updating the Beaver Valley plant’s earthquake and flooding risk assessments, which ultimately showed no need for new requirements or safety features.

FirstEnergy stated in an SEC filing last month that “these and other NRC requirements adopted as a result of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi are likely to result in additional material costs from plant modifications and upgrades at (our) nuclear facilities.”

Spokeswoman Jennifer Young said the company would not release total cost of the updates or provide a ballpark figure. But the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates the industry will spend roughly $4 billion to meet the NRC’s recommendations.

“The industry has been candid about the current economic realities it faces, including competition from low natural gas prices,” said Sheehan, the NRC spokesman. “The commission has been equally frank about the need to take steps to ensure what happened at Fukushima never happens at a U.S. nuclear power plant.”

Harden, who last month was named senior vice president and chief operating officer of FirstEnergy’s nuclear division, did not question the need for new requirements.

“I couldn’t point to anything and say, if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t have required that because they have to have the ability to put their independent verification that everything we’ve done meets standards,” he said. “It’s the regulators way of forcing us to verify. So I can’t call that overly burdensome.”

In a way, it’s the price tag the industry has paid for years to project a positive image of safety, especially following high-profile accidents.

This phenomenon is illustrated in public opinion polls conducted for the industry since 1983 by Ann Bisconti, who worked for the precursor to the Nuclear Energy Institute during the Three Mile Island accident.

Operators at that time wanted an accurate reading of public favor, and for the first few years, Americans were split on the issue. After Chernobyl, most people opposed the industry.

But that has since steadily reversed and, according to the spring 2015 poll released last week by her Maryland-based research firm Bisconti Research Inc., more than two-thirds of Americans now “strongly” or “somewhat” favor nuclear energy.

That’s almost back to levels before the Fukushima accident, Bisconti noted.

What’s more, Bisconti said her national surveys reveal that those who live within 10 miles of a nuclear plant - excluding plant employees - are more in favor of nuclear energy because they are more familiar with how it works. In separate surveys, she’s also found that respondents who identify as the most nuclear-informed are more in favor of the industry.

“They know people who work at the plant, they have picnics there, they go swimming or boating or fishing near the plants,” Bisconti said. “The public is answering these (poll) questions based on impressions they have … and they have an image of nuclear energy being important for the future.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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