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Details of the current standard are frighteningly but somehow reassuringly practical. A nuclear plant must be able to safely survive the impact of a one-inch steel ball hurtling through the air at 17 mph, a 15-foot length of six-inch-diameter steel pipe flung at 92 mph, and a 4,000-pound car flying at the same speed.
The first incident occurred at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Generating Station in Mississippi, which encountered an F3 tornado on April 17, 1978, while the plant was still under construction. Damage was limited to the electrical switchyard and a cooling tower, which lost a big chunk of concrete from the top.
In 1998 the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant in Ohio was hit by an F2 tornado, which damaged the switchyard and communications and forced the plant into automatic shutdown after external power was lost. Due to the lack of power, a spent-fuel storage pond got warmer than the operators would have liked, but no radiation was released.
On August 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew, then a Category 4 storm (equivalent to an EF2 or EF3 tornado), caused extensive but ultimately minor damage to the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Florida. The reactor shut down following loss of outside power and phone systems plus damage to the fire protection systems, emergency generator, and several outbuildings.
In 1974 the first major regulations for tornado-resistant design came out, requiring that nuclear plants in most of the U.S. be capable of surviving a total wind speed of 360 miles per hour — a figure that was literally off the charts, as the F-scale topped out at 318 mph.
That raised the question of how tornado-resistant pre-1974 plants were. A mid-70s study of nine early plants found the odds of serious tornado damage in any given year were less than one in 5 million, with damage likely limited to the backup power systems. The chance of a tornado-induced core meltdown was calculated at 1 in 15 million over a reactor’s 30-year life span.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The closest nuclear power plant to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., was singled out weeks before the storm for being vulnerable to twisters.
The Wolf Creek Nuclear power plant near New Strawn, Kan., went online in 1985.
From their website today:
Two nuclear plants in Japan are having operational challenges following the earthquake and tsunami.
On March 11, Japan was struck by an earthquake and tsunami. As a result, two of their nuclear power plants have experienced operational challenges during the past few days.
Inspections triggered by Japan's nuclear crisis found that some emergency equipment and storage sites at the Wolf Creek nuclear plant in southeastern Kansas might not survive a tornado.
Specifically, plant operators and federal inspectors said Wolf Creek did not secure equipment and vehicles needed to fight fires, retrieve fuel for emergency generators and resupply water to keep nuclear fuel cool as it's being moved...
Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp., which runs the facility about 150 miles northwest of Joplin, said it would take action to correct the problems.
David Lochbaum, a former nuclear plant engineer who now works on nuclear safety for the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, said the equipment that a tornado could disable is the "backup of backups," but that potential should raise concern nonetheless.
"It's kind of nuclear safety 101," Lochbaum said. "It's kind of stupid for it to be there, where it could help with a tornado, and a tornado takes it out."
[color=Chartreuse]Already this year, tornadoes have knocked out power to nuclear power plants in Alabama and Virginia, exposing vulnerabilities.
[color=Cyan]At Browns Ferry in Alabama, storms disabled sirens, meaning that police and emergency personnel would have had to use telephones and loudspeakers in a crisis.
At the Surry Power Station in Virginia, documents obtained by AP show that a tornado badly damaged a fuel tanker used to refuel a backup generator.
As Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast, the nuclear industry assured the public that
the storm wouldn't damage the dozens of reactors in its path. The industry’s watchdogs also expressed less concern about the hurricane’s potential impact on nuclear reactors than about
the vulnerability of the exposed connections between them and the rest of the world.
One concern surrounds the electric grid – the lines that transmit power to cities and homes. Another concern is the reliability of electricity that supplies the reactors themselves, and ensures safe operation of the plant.
“Nuclear power plants are the most robust facilities in the U.S. infrastructure, with reactor containment structures composed of steel-reinforced concrete that have proven their ability to withstand extreme natural events,” said the NRC in a statement on Friday, as Hurricane Irene was closing in on the mid-Atlantic.
“It’s counterintuitive for most people that nuclear power plants need electricity from the outside for the safety systems to function,” said Jim Riccio, an energy policy analyst at Greenpeace.
[color=Cyan]“But as we’ve seen from Fukushima, if you don’t cool the core, you have serious trouble on your hands and eventually a meltdown.”
Fires regularly occur at the 104 U.S. nuclear plants nearly 10 times a year on average. About half the accidents that threaten reactor cores begin with fires that can start from a short circuit in an electric cable, a spark that ignites the oil in a pump, or an explosion in a transformer. Even a small fire could trigger a chain of events that threatens a meltdown, and some have come close.
Do you live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor?
One third of Americans do.
Property contaminated by nuclear materials is not covered by insurance, so if your house is affected, you could be displaced permanently and lose everything. Use the tool below to find out if you are within an evacuation zone and are at risk. Also notice the number of people who would have to be evacuated if there was an accident at the plant closest to you.
The 25th anniversary of Chernobyl and the continuing crisis at Fukushima -- both Level 7 nuclear disasters -- are clear reminders that standard evacuation zones cannot protect the public from a nuclear accident. Current NRC regulations stipulate a 10 mile evacuation zone around nuclear plants. This is clearly insufficient and 50 miles has been recommended.
’TVA is evaluating the possible use of mixed-oxide fuel -- which contains surplus plutonium from the nuclear weapons program -- at its two Sequoyah nuclear power plants near Chattanooga and perhaps Browns Ferry or other reactors in the future.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, a sub-unit of the Dept. of Energy that runs the weapons program, announced today that TVA had signed a "letter of intent" to enter into negotiations with Shaw AREVA MOX Services LLC.
TVA spokesman John Moulton emphasized that the letter of intent is non-binding. "We have agreed to work together explore the potential use of weapons-grade MOX fuel in TVA reactors," Moulton said. The letter with Shaw AREVA MOX Services was signed July 6, 2009, the TVA spokesman said.’
[color=Cyan]At one point, only 12 of 100 sirens in the communities surrounding Browns Ferry worked. A similar problem occurred in the region surrounding the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., which lost 36 of its 108 sirens. [color=Salmon]If there had been a crisis at either nuclear plant, emergency officials would have driven vehicles with loudspeakers through affected areas to alert residents.
A far more tense shut-down came when off-site power was lost during 1992's Hurricane Andrew, whose eye passed directly over Turkey Point. At the height of the storm, communication from the control room was also dangerously lost. Tools and equipment valued at around $100 million were destroyed or simply blown away.