published Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Fukushima still affecting U.S. nuclear industry

White smoke billows from the No. 3 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okumamachi, northeastern Japan. (AP File Photo/Tokyo Electric Power  Co. via Kyodo News)
White smoke billows from the No. 3 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okumamachi, northeastern Japan. (AP File Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Kyodo News)
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One year after an earthquake, tsunami and three nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan, 100,000 evacuees still can’t go home, but Americans are being told the health threat there from radiation is minimal.

Vanderbilt University professor John Boice, the incoming president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, last week told the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that the increased cancer risk from the event is just 1 percent.

“I received more radiation on my transcontinental flights from Tokyo to Washington than I did at the reactor site,” Boice said.

But Arnie Gundersen, a former industry vice president and co-author of the first edition of the “Department of Energy Decommissioning Handbook,” recently told the Japanese Press Club something quite different.

“I understand that my number of about a million cancers over the next 20 years [because of Fukushima] is higher than a lot of nuclear industry experts, but I base my number on studies that came out of Three Mile Island,” he said.

“I realize the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says no one died after Three Mile Island, but there’s a lot of analysis to indicate there were 10 percent increases in lung cancers. Those studies are just now coming out,” he said.

As the world tries to understand the benefits and dangers of nuclear energy, there seems no end to contradictions about the “lessons” of Fukushima Dai-ichi — the near twin of TVA’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala.

Three Fukushima reactors were thrown into meltdown in after a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami one year ago today.

Last week the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group, released a November survey that claims 62 percent of the public and 80 percent of nuclear plant neighbors still favor nuclear energy.

On Wednesday, the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute released its own public opinion survey showing an almost opposite result.

Nearly six in 10 Americans, 57 percent, are less supportive of expanding nuclear power in the United States than they were before the Japanese reactor crisis. That finding is nearly identical to the 58 percent who felt that way when asked the same question one year ago, said Pam Solo, founder and president of the Civil Society Institute.

The Civil Society Institute poll also found three in four Americans say they now are more receptive than a year ago “to using clean renewable energy resources — such as wind and solar — and increased energy efficiency as an alternative to more nuclear power in the United States.”

Also last week, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a major nuclear energy advocate, spoke at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and called on Congress to “stop the ‘Big Wind’ gravy train” and end tax breaks for wind energy.

Subsidies for developers of huge wind turbines will cost taxpayers $14 billion between 2009 and 2013, said Alexander.

Nuclear opponents say nuclear energy would not be possible without large federal loan guarantees.

Alexander said four nuclear reactors — each occupying one square mile — would equal the production of a row of 50-story wind turbines strung the entire length of the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

LOCAL FALLOUT

Within hours of the Japanese events, TVA had formed its own task force to rethink what could happen at its three nuclear plants — Browns Ferry, Sequoyah in Soddy-Daisy and Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn.

“We immediately began looking for ways to make our safe nuclear plants even safer. The inspections we conducted verified the safety and preparedness of TVA’s nuclear plants,” said TVA spokesman Ray Golden.

The federal utility has spent about $10 million in the past year to add more portable emergency equipment, including satellite phones.

TVA also has ordered 3-megawatt diesel-powered electric generators to back up existing onsite diesel generators. Another seven 150,000-watt diesel generators are on order for use in recharging the plants’ back-up battery banks.

Golden said TVA also has enhanced training and exercise drills.

“We are replacing all alternating current emergency warning sirens with combination AC/DC-powered sirens set on steel versus wood-mounted poles, [and] we will be further evaluating the plant from a seismic and flood-hazard risk,” he said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists last week lambasted the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for not enforcing its own regulations and for not revising regulations shown to be lacking after Fukushima and other, smaller U.S. mishaps.

David Lochbaum, director of the Union’s Nuclear Safety Project, said plants’ emergency response procedures often are out of date.

His example was Watts Bar.

When NRC inspectors examined emergency procedures and operator training after the Japan meltdowns, they found that procedures for controlling hydrogen that might be generated during an accident at the Watts Bar plant directed operators to use equipment that had been removed years earlier.

“Finding that during a real emergency could have wasted precious time,” Lochbaum said.

The Nuclear Energy Institute has rolled out what it calls the FLEX approach, something much like what TVA has done: Create additional backup emergency power by stationing extra generators and supplies in multiple locations.

“We are concerned about the industry wagging the dog,” said Ed Lyman, the Union’s senior scientist in its global security program. Lyman said the nuclear industry has before and could again use its expenditures for the voluntary improvements to influence NRC’s future regulatory decisions.

“Voluntary” equipment and efforts lack enforceable guidelines, he said.

Golden said TVA cannot estimate its eventual total cost to adjust to lessons of Fukushima until the NRC releases its new priority requirements, which should be soon.

“Until those are issued and we have had some time to evaluate and conduct engineering and design analysis, it would be impossible to estimate what the costs [of complying] will be,” Golden said. “When we have completed that assessment we will provide an estimate of overall cost.”

about Pam Sohn...

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, ...

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