Reactor Twister Safe; Not Rest of Plant

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 @ 06:05 PM gHale

If there is any good coming out of the disaster in Japan it has to be inspections triggered by the nuclear crisis are finding issues at various nuclear plants.

Take the Wolf Creek nuclear plant in southeastern Kansas. That plant, located in the heart of Tornado Alley, might not survive a tornado as it stands today.

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 they move it.

Despite these findings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) concluded the plant met requirements put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks. These requirements need to allow the plant to keep the nuclear fuel cool and containment structures intact during an emergency.

Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp., which runs the facility about 150 miles northwest of Joplin, said it would take action to correct the problems.

“The issues affected only one of several (emergency) procedures, so we continue to conclude Wolf Creek meets requirements, the same conclusion we’ve reached for every U.S. plant,” said Scott Burnell, a NRC spokesman.

Wolf Creek, until recently, was one of three nuclear plants placed on a federal watch list in March for safety-related issues.

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.

Already this year, tornadoes have knocked out power to nuclear power plants in Alabama and Virginia, exposing vulnerabilities.

At Browns Ferry in Alabama, storms disabled sirens, meaning police and emergency personnel would have had to use telephones and loudspeakers in a crisis.

At the Surry Power Station in Virginia, a tornado badly damaged a fuel tanker used to refuel a backup generator.

Those instances, along with the situation at Wolf Creek, highlight a larger problem at the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors: While reactors and safety systems can withstand a worst-case earthquake, flood, or tornado, that doesn’t necessarily mean all emergency equipment or the buildings that house the equipment are disaster proof.

Wolf Creek’s location in Tornado Alley means it can handle the maximum tornadoes possible for the United States, with wind speeds up to 360 miles per hour and a maximum rotational speed of 290 miles per hour.

But its fire truck is parked in a sheet-metal building “not protected from seismic or severe weather events,” according to the NRC inspection conducted after the Japanese disaster.

There are other options besides on-site equipment for dealing with fires, said Jenny Hageman, a spokeswoman for the plant.

“We are absolutely protected from a tornado,” Hageman said. “Is everything protected from a tornado on this job site? No. But we protect the critical elements.”

The NRC’s post-Japan inspections found numerous other instances where U.S. nuclear plants kept equipment needed to fight fires or to cope with a loss of electrical power in places that a flood could overwhelm or an earthquake could damage.

What sets Wolf Creek apart is it is at much greater risk of falling in the path of a tornado than other plants are from natural disasters.

Since 1985, when the Wolf Creek plant came on line, six tornadoes have touched down in Coffey County, the location of the plant, according to the National Climatic Data Center. All of those twisters were minor, and caused no injuries or deaths. Over that same time period, the National Weather Service issued 23 tornado warnings in the county.