U.S. Nuclear Industry Continues Safety
with Eye to the Future
Jay Wagner vividly remembers an ominous night in 1994 when five tornadoes descended in rapid succession on northwestern Illinois— threatening homes, buildings and power infrastructure in Rock Island County.
Wagner was helming the control room that night at Quad Cities Nuclear Generating Station—squarely in the flight path of the swirling storms.
"Even with the dangerous weather, I was confident the plant would hold up," said Wagner, a Downers Grove Local 15 member. "We got everyone inside and put our contingency plans into motion, which we'd constantly trained on."
In the aftermath, many structures suffered significant damage. But the plant remained functionally unscathed.
"This place is built like a tank—it can withstand more than 200 mph winds," Wagner said.
With more than 19 years of experience as a reactor operator at the station, Wagner is considered something of a nuclear expert by people in the community.
So when the earthquake and resulting tsunami hit Japan March 11, triggering a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Wagner's phone started ringing.
"Friends, family and neighbors all called wanting to know more about Japan's problems and if we could have them here," he said. "Our plant is basically the same model of Fukushima's—but we've had so many upgrades since its construction that it barely resembles how it functioned right after construction. I believe there's no reason for concern."
Earthquake aftershocks and fires have exacerbated an already dangerous situation at Fukushima, as radiation from partial meltdowns has leaked beyond the plant into surrounding areas. Equipment damaged by floods, fires and explosions are compounding what analysts are calling the most complicated nuclear accident ever.
Industry experts—citing rigorous scientific data on possible seismic events—say that such a situation would be highly unlikely in the United States. They say that even in the event of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes or other natural disasters, workers at the nation's nuclear facilities are able to stand up to such challenges.
Resistance to Natural Events
Two thousand miles away from Quad Cities, California's Diablo Canyon Power Plant sits on the Pacific Ocean in sunny San Luis Obispo County. While it's one of the closest U.S. nuclear reactors to any major body of water, it was designed and built to withstand natural disasters.
Vacaville Local 1245 member and Diablo Canyon reactor operator Mike Jacobson has logged more than 30 years at the facility. When it became apparent that an earthquake and resulting tsunami had caused major problems at Fukushima, "our plant kicked into high gear."
When the tsunami warning was issued along the Pacific Coast, Diablo Canyon management began their emergency procedures to prepare for a potential scenario.
"Our station took precautions until the warning was downgraded," Jacobson said. Strong waves lapped the coastline but didn't threaten structures near the shore; Jacobson said that designs and procedures in place at Diablo Canyon would have protected and prevented most potential disasters.
Diablo Canyon is anchored deep in bedrock and has safety systems and emergency reservoirs 80 feet or more above sea level—higher than Fukushima. It also has the highest seismic standards of any nuclear plant in the world.
Experts say that Quad Cities and Diablo Canyon are just two examples of the industry's 65 nuclear sites nationwide that are ready to mitigate disasters. Plants' safety standards, emergency plans and procedures are fully scrutinized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—the independent federal watchdog of the industry.
More facilities are similarly battle-tested. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Louisiana's Waterford Nuclear Generating Station maintained safe operation on backup diesel generators for four days until crews were able to reconnect off-site power. Loss of such power was the key culprit in the Japan disaster.
Industry leaders also point to safeguards implemented after 9/11. Following the attacks, plant designs and operating practices were modified to withstand scenarios like aircraft impact, which could cause a loss of off-site power and all on-site emergency power sources. As rigorous as these protocols are, new, more stringent procedures are being put in place in the wake of Fukushima.
Regarding earthquakes, the Nuclear Energy Institute—an industry group active in legislative and regulatory issues affecting the industry—reported: "Every U.S. nuclear power plant has an in-depth seismic analysis and is designed and constructed to withstand the maximum projected earthquake that could occur in its area without any breach of safety systems."
Safety First … and Second, and Third
From the dawning of the nuclear industry in the '50s, the watchword has always been safety. That's why the IBEW crew at Susquehanna Steam Electric Station in northeastern Pennsylvania works to ensure that the state's largest nuclear facility—a primary source of inexpensive, carbon-free energy—functions smoothly and uneventfully. The plant recently earned the Voluntary Protection Program "Star" status from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration—one of the highest OSHA awards.
The successful safety records at U.S. facilities come as no surprise to Dave Mullen, IBEW International Representative for the Utility Department in Washington, D.C. Mullen recently spoke at a Capitol Hill briefing about protocols at U.S. facilities.
"The nuclear sector has always been one of the most highly-regulated industries in the United States," Mullen said. "All of our plants undergo frequent drills to make sure that backup safety protocols work smoothly. And plant operators rigorously train to be prepared in the unlikely event of a loss of off-site power, or if equipment doesn't perform as intended."
Wagner, the reactor operator at Quad Cities, recently completed a weeklong "continuing training" course which mandated 20 hours in a site-specific control room simulator. He said he does similar trainings every six weeks—just one part of the high level of knowledge nuclear workers are required to possess.
"Becoming a nuclear reactor operator is a massive undertaking," he said. "You need to have college experience and then the company trains you for an additional two years. And there's always more to learn as plants phase in more top-of-the-line digital systems."
Where We Go From Here
For all its contributions to the nation's clean energy generation, nuclear's future looks murky in the wake of Fukushima, Mullen said. But agencies, operators and labor leaders all agree that the first priority is to help Japan with its challenges, while assessing and learning how to improve plant safety back at home.
The NRC says immediate changes are being implemented. It has called for additional inspections to verify plant readiness for hurricanes, tsunamis and similar events, as well as a 90-day review at stations to determine if any larger steps need to be taken. Further steps include testing and retesting equipment, and making sure that plant operators and support staff have the most up-to-date qualifications.
"The 15,000 IBEW members in the nuclear sector working at 42 plants are not industry insiders—they're workers," International President Edwin D. Hill said. "They operate the plants and are responsible for being at the forefront of safety. Their families live close to plants, so IBEW members have every reason to be as informed and proactive about making sure their stations run as safely as possible.
"We continue to believe that nuclear power will be a vital part of our national energy portfolio as we address environmental and supply issues in the future," he said.
But at the moment, the industry will remain in a holding pattern, said Mullen, the IBEW International Representative. "Regarding new construction, current things are slowed as we are taking time to learn lessons from Japan," he said.
Plants will also continue to be inspected and generate power, but expansion will be delayed as the industry and regulators work to improve and ensure the continued safety of the U.S. fleet. Utility managers, regulators and scientists have testified to U.S. Senate members that the nation's plants are safe, but "we cannot be complacent about the accident at Fukushima," said William Levis, president of N.J.-based Public Service Electric and Gas Co., which operates several nuclear facilities.
In the meantime, the IBEW members in the nuclear sector nationwide will do what they do every day—display excellence on the job and lead by example in an industry increasingly under the microscope.