A year after Fukushima, the South remains at unnecessary risk of nuclear disaster

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the tragedy in Fukushima, Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami crippled a coastal nuclear power plant, leading to meltdowns in three reactors, hydrogen explosions and a release of radiation so massive that the surrounding areas could remain uninhabitable for decades.

One might think that a disaster of such scope would spur nuclear regulators in the United States to take immediate steps to ensure that nothing like that could happen here.

But unfortunately, that's not the case -- and residents of the South remain at particular risk of a nuclear mishap.

Nationwide, 23 General Electric Mark I boiling water reactors -- the same flawed design as those that melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi plant -- are still operating despite an April 2011 watchdog petition to immediately suspend their operating licenses. They include three reactors at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry plant in Decatur, Ala. and two at the Georgia Power/Southern Co. Hatch plant in Baxley, Ga., as well as reactors at plants in Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont. The petition was later amended to include the Progress Energy's Brunswick plant in Southport, N.C. Though the two reactors there are not identical to the other 21 GE Mark I models, they have the same problematic venting system that led to the hydrogen explosions in Japan.

There is some good news on the regulatory front regarding these risky reactors, however: In December, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) agreed to review several requested actions including revoking federal approval of the GE Mark I containment venting system and order all Mark I operators to install backup emergency power systems to ensure cooling in the reactors' rooftop spent-fuel storage pools.

And late last week, the NRC issued new rules designed to boost safety at these and other reactors. The rules would require operators of Mark I reactors to improve venting systems to help prevent core damage in case of serious accident. They also require plants to better protect safety equipment installed after the 9/11 attacks and to have sufficient equipment to protect all of a site's reactor's simultaneously. However, plants have until the end of 2016 to comply with the orders.

While one might think that the GE Mark I reactors in the U.S. do not present a risk because they're not located in tsunami zones, some are at high risk from another common disaster: hurricanes. The Southport plant, for instance, is located along the North Carolina coast where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic. While nuclear plants themselves are built to withstand severe storms, reactors require outside power for the functioning of safety systems including core cooling. If the plants were to lose power for an extended period during a storm, the fuel rods could overheat, leading to an uncontrolled nuclear reaction as occurred at the Japanese reactors.

The investigative journalism organization Center for Public Integrity reported last year on the problems that hurricanes present for reactors. Among those they interviewed was Jim Riccio, an energy policy analyst with Greenpeace, which opposes nuclear power:

It is not unprecedented for nuclear plants to lose power and transportation links for days at a time in the wake of severe hurricanes. A 1993 report on Hurricane Andrew noted that the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Florida lost offsite power for more than five days and the access roads to the facility were blocked by downed trees and utility poles.

If the power goes out along the Eastern seaboard for a long period of time, there is a risk that nuclear plants’ backup generators could run out of fuel. Or, Riccio added, the backup power could fail like one of them did [last year] after the earthquake knocked out electricity to the North Anna nuclear power plant in Virginia.

And unfortunately, the South is at especially high risk from hurricanes, tornadoes and other severe weather events. Last year Sperling's Best Places, a publisher of city rankings, analyzed the likelihood of weather disaster and earthquakes in 379 metro areas -- and the eight places that turned out to be at greatest risk were all in the South: Dallas-Plano-Irving, Tex.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Corpus Christi, Tex.; Houston; Beaumont-Port Arthur, Tex.; Shreveport, La.; Austin, Texas; and Birmingham, Ala. The following New York Times graphic illustrates the South's special vulnerability:

The Dallas area, which faces the highest risk of weather disaster, is located just 60 miles north of the Comanche Peak nuclear plant operated by Luminant; that plant is also just 40 miles from Fort Worth. Other nuclear power plants located along or near the particularly disaster-prone Gulf Coast include Progress Energy's Crystal River plant in Florida (offline since September 2009 after a gap was discovered in the containment); the Alabama Power/Southern Co. Farley plant in southeast Alabama; Entergy's Grand Gulf plant in Mississippi; and NRG's South Texas plant 90 miles southwest of Houston along the coast in Bay City.

In 2011, five U.S. nuclear plants had emergency shutdowns due to natural disasters, and three of those plants were in the South: Dominion's North Anna in Louisa, Va., was shut down due to an earthquake, while that company's Surry plant in southeastern Virginia and TVA's Browns Ferry Plant in Alabama were shut down due to tornados. Six million Americans live within 10 miles of a nuclear plant, the evacuation zone set by the federal government; more than 120 million live within 50 miles, the evacuation zone set by the U.S. government for Americans around the Fukushima plant.

Meanwhile, a push is on to build new reactors using an untested design that's sparked concerns among nuclear experts -- and all of those reactors are slated for sites across the South.

Plans are underway to build a total of 14 Westinghouse-Toshiba AP1000 reactors at Duke Energy's Lee plant near Gaffney, S.C.; Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point plant south of Miami; Georgia Power/Southern Company's Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Ga.; Progress Energy's Shearon Harris plant near Raleigh, N.C. and its Levy County plant in Florida; the SCANA/South Carolina Electric & Gas Summer plant near Jenkinsville, S.C.; and the Tennessee Valley Authority's Bellefonte plant in Hollywood, Ala.

Back in 2010, the NRC questioned whether the AP1000's shield building could withstand a severe external event such as a hurricane or an earthquake. In addition, nuclear engineer and former industry executive Arnie Gundersen has raised concerns that the AP1000 design makes it vulnerable to releasing radiation in the event of an accident.

Last November, a coalition of nuclear watchdog groups filed a formal petition with the NRC asking for the design problems to be resolved prior to certification and for the agency to take the lessons of Fukushima into account before allowing construction to move forward. But in December 2011, the NRC unanimously approved the AP1000 design, and last month the agency approved the construction of two of the reactors at Georgia's Plant Vogtle.

Following that move by the NRC, nine nuclear watchdog groups filed a lawsuit seeking to block the license for the Vogtle reactors, which are being financed by Georgia ratepayers. Friends of the Earth, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Georgia Women's Action for New Directions, North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, Nuclear Information and Resource Service and Nuclear Watch South accuse the NRC of violating federal law by issuing the Vogtle license without fully considering the public-safety and environmental implications of Fukushima.

"The nuclear disaster in Japan should have put the brakes on new plants in the United States," said Lou Zeller of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. "But an aggressive industry and a compliant NRC seem to have a lead foot, ignoring the danger signs."

(Photo of Fukushima solidarity action from Beyond Nuclear.)