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Nuclear experts say America needs to rethink at least two things: Are we planning for big enough earthquakes and natural disasters, and should we be contemplating using hotter and more dangerous fuels blended down from old nuclear warheads in nuclear power production.
“Reactors are basically designed to withstand an earthquake. They’re also designed to withstand tsunamis [or tornadoes or plane crashes], but they’re not really designed to handle both occurring on the same day,” said Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and former worker at TVA’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant and now director of the nuclear safety program at the Union for Concerned Scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit group that has no pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear position.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan now has four reactors in various stages of partial meltdown after a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami Friday.
The plant was designed for a stronger quake than its sister plant here — Browns Ferry near Athens, Ala. Both are the same design, a General Electric Mark 1 boiling-water reactor.
There is another parallel between the Japanese and TVA plants.
Nuclear experts say an experimental fuel from old warheads in at least one of the embattled Japanese reactors is much more volatile and dangerous, and TVA officials announced last year they hope to gain National Regulatory Commission approval to use that same fuel in Sequoyah and Browns Ferry by 2018.
MOX, the nickname for mixed oxide fuel, would save money and help defray ratepayer costs, TVA has said of the fuel tried and abandoned by Duke Energy.
Ed Lyman, the senior staff scientist for Union of Concerned Scientists, said the use of MOX generally increases the consequences of severe accidents in which large amounts of radioactive gas are released, compared to the same accident in a reactor using non-MOX fuel.
That could be particularly dangerous in reactors such those at Fukushima and Browns Ferry, because the Mark 1 design is unusually vulnerable to containment failure in the event of a core-melt accident, according to a study by Sandia National Laboratories. The study shows the Mark 1’s likelihood of containment failure in a core melt accident is nearly 42 percent.
With the mixed-oxide fuel onboard, “the number of latent cancer fatalities resulting from an accident could increase by as much as a factor of five for a full core of MOX fuel compared to the same accident with no MOX,” Lyman said.
In Japan, the No. 3 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi plant contains only about 6 percent MOX fuel, officials have said. Lyman said that’s fortunate for people nearby.
“I would estimate this could cause a roughly 10 percent increase in latent cancer fatalities if there were a severe accident with core melt and containment breach,” he said.
TVA’s Golden said MOX would be a cost saver.
“We’re also trying to provide service to our customers, which includes low cost,” he said. “But we will not use it if it’s obviously not safe.”
Louise Gorenflo, Tennessee Sierra Club representative on TVA’s recent energy planning exercise, said the utility industry as a whole and TVA may have a hard time taking the Japan lessons.
“I don’t know how open TVA is to learning,” Gorenflo said Tuesday. “It’s a human arrogance we have — the idea that we are willing to use a technology that requires nature to behave in a certain way. The reality is that nature does not bend to human engineering. The lesson is that our technology needs to fit nature.”
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...