Tuesday’s earthquake coupled with the approaching Hurricane Irene, remind us that extreme weather events could impact our state’s four nuclear energy facilities. Are these facilities prepared to handle a worst case scenario? The problem is we only plan for one event at a time instead of a worst case scenario. However we could have multiple events at the same time and that is where the systems may fail. We could have a flood and power outage or a hurricane and earthquake at the same time and this could be a recipe for disaster. We plan for what is probable instead of what is possible.
New Jersey is home to the oldest nuclear power plant in the country, Oyster Creek. Oyster Creek and the Salem power plants both lack cooling towers, the best available technology to cool nuclear reactors. Without cooling towers, the plants depend on continuous withdrawals from waterways to cool spent fuel, making the plants more vulnerable during power outages and to disruption of their water intake systems. Salem has had to close down due to grass clogs. Indian Point is located on the Ramapo fault line and could be impacted by future earthquakes. The National Regulatory Commission rated Indian Point Reactor 3 as the most vulnerable to earthquakes in the country. As we are impacted by extreme weather events this week, we must call on state and federal regulators to look at the safety of our nuclear plants and their ability to withstand major disasters.
The earthquake and approaching hurricane should be a wakeup call to people and regulators that our nuclear facilities could be more vulnerable than we realize. What happens if we have two events at once like an earthquake and a hurricane? To make our plants safer we need to look at and design for the occurrence of multiple disasters at the same time. This is a wakeup call that we need to do better planning and safety.”
The earthquake was a 5.8 and according to the US Geological Survey, Toms River has experienced earthquakes of a magnitude 5.0 or greater in the last 150 years. The highest intensity earthquake ever observed in New Jersey was a 5.5 that occurred on June 1, 1927, in the Asbury Park area, less than 35 miles away from Oyster Creek. Three shocks were felt along the coast from Sandy Hook to Toms River. Several chimneys fell, plaster cracked, and articles were thrown from shelves. The felt area extended over approximately 7,800 square kilometers. We are overdue for a similar earthquake.
Governor Christie created a Nuclear Review Taskforce earlier this year to examine the safety of New Jersey’s four nuclear power plants and their preparedness in the face of potential natural disasters. The Sierra Club has long questioned the safety of Oyster Creek in Forked River and urges the panel to recommend the plant be closed down. Extreme weather events at Oyster Creek could impact the facility’s corroded pipes that leak radioactive tritium or the corroding drywall liner of the reactor containment vessel. The wall is currently one-half as thick as when the plant opened in the late 1960s.
The design of Oyster Creek is the same as the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1, a GE Mark I BWR. Even a moderate earthquake at Oyster Creek could impact the above ground spent fuel rod storage system. The Japanese reactor had a cement dome over the containment vessel and Oyster Creek does not, possibly making it more at risk if a build up of hydrogen occurs.
The Sierra Club is concerned with excavation procedures and routes during an emergency at Oyster Creek. Ocean County’s population doubles on a summer weekend. There is close to one million people in a 12 to13 mile radius of the power plant. It is hard enough to get home from a day at the beach, let alone when you have to evacuate people during an emergency.
The Salem and Hope Creek plants were relicensed earlier this year by the NRC but that process did not look at the ability of the reactors to handle worst case scenarios, natural or man-made, such as storm surges, flooding, and sea level rise as a result of climate change. The NRC review did not even look at redundancy and backup systems thoroughly.
The lesson of Fukishima is we have to plan for multiple worst case scenarios. It was not just the earthquake, but the earthquake and the tsunami together that caused the disaster. We have to look at the impacts simultaneous events could have on these facilities.
The NRC and state Taskforce reviews lack outside nuclear safety expertise. There is no independent study of the safety of New Jersey’s four plants. Organizations such as Scandia Labs and Union of Concerned Scientists and nuclear experts at New Jersey’s universities including Professors Van Hibble and Oppenheimer have not been asked to look at the impacts of extreme weather events on these facilities.