Fire & Flood threaten nuke plants

SUBHEAD: The head of the NRC downplayed the risk to public safety posed by wildfires and floodwater that are threatening nuclear facilities in New Mexico and Nebraska. By Staff on 28 June 2011 for CBS News - (;lst;1) Image above: The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station surrounded by floodwaters from the swollen Missouri River, June 27, 2011. From original article.

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico was shut down and evacuated due to an encroaching wildfire.

Los Alamos lab still under threat from blaze

In eastern Nebraska, the Fort Calhoun power plant is surrounded by the swollen Missouri River. Omaha Public Power, which owns and operates that facility, insists that all nuclear material remains high and dry, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.

On Monday the nation's nuclear regulatory chief went to Nebraska to see for himself: "The risk is really very low at this point that anything could go wrong," said NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Appearing on CBS' "The Early Show" this morning, Jaczko said the nuclear facilities in Nebraska threatened by flooding - the Fort Calhoun and Cooper stations - are "very prepared right now to deal with that situation.

"It certainly is a challenge, the water levels are very high. But all of the vital safety systems at those plants are being protected," said Jaczko. "And we've got our staff here 24/7, around the clock, to make sure that the licensees take the appropriate action.

"Certainly it is a picture that could cause one to be concerned. But the vital and important safety systems that are inside those plants are being protected. There's lots of sandbags and other kinds of barriers on all the vital doors to make sure that water can't get into places that it shouldn't be."

Anchor Chris Wragge asked about the likelihood of an emergency similar to what occurred at the Fukushima-Da-ichi plant in Japan which was crippled by floodwaters that killed the electrical systems and the cooling systems, creating a near-meltdown.

"That's not what we anticipate," said Jaczko. "All of the vital systems, the electrical distribution systems, are being protected. They have emergency backup diesel generators in the event that they would lose their normal power supplies. So we think that all the right systems are in place. But just to be sure we have our inspectors here making sure, 'round the clock, that all the right precautions are being taken."

Jaczko also said the NRC will render whatever assistance is necessary to the Department of Energy, which oversees the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Aging nuclear plants a safety risk?

According to a year-long investigation by the Associated Press, the country is far from prepared for a nuclear emergency. Citing the NRC's own data, the report suggests America's nuclear power facilities are outdated and, in some cases, a safety risk.

The report claims 66 power plants have been relicensed to run 20 years beyond their original shelf life, often in once-rural areas that have quadrupled in population since 1980.

Even more alarming, many of these plants are so close to large populations that, in the event of an emergency, a large-scale evacuation would be next to impossible to execute ... especially in a place like Indian Point, just 36 miles from New York City.

"At a time when the nuclear industry is under considerable public scrutiny, this kind of information really doesn't do anything to build public trust or confidence in the nuclear industry," James Acton, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told "The Early Show."

"I think the thing that worries me most is, what happens if there is an event similar to Fukushima?" said Acton.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was flooded by a tsunami earlier this year, and the NRC told Americans living in Japan to evacuate outside a 50-mile radius ... well above the 10-mile radius standard set up by the NRC 30 year ago.

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The AP report concludes with an aging nuclear program - poor maintenance has led to leaks of the radioactive chemical tritium in at least three-quarters of all U.S. nuclear facilities, and has even contaminated drinking water in Minnesota and Illinois.

"I think it's cause for careful public scrutiny and clear transparent answers from the nuclear industry and from the NRC," said Acton.

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When asked on "The Early Show" about emergency plans at U.S. nuclear power stations, Jaczko said, "We have a very robust emergency preparedness program. And let me say this: That program really only kind of kicks in after the many, many layers of protection and defense that we have to prevent any kind of release of radiation to the public. All of those systems would have to fail before we would ever really get into a situation to need an evacuation.

"We require every plant in the United States to test those programs every two years. It's a very comprehensive exercise involving state governments, local governments, the NRC, as well as the utilities. So it's a very robust program that is there to ensure, in that very unlikely event, that the people will be protected. "

Wragge also asked Jaczko to respond the AP report's finding that three-quarters of U.S. nuclear power sites have leaked the radioactive isotope tridium.

"Well, first and foremost, this is really not an acceptable situation for any nuclear power plant to have this kind of leaking tridium," he replied. "So we're working with all of the plants that do to make sure they either repair the piping systems or remediate the area to get rid of the ground water in the most effective and most safe way.

"But fundamentally, it's not something where the public is really being threatened from a health standpoint. It's really, right now, just more of a challenge on the reactor sites, and has the potential, if it's not mitigated, to ultimately have some very low-level impacts off the site. But, we're comfortable that the right steps are being taken to prevent that from ever happening."

Ft Calhoun Nuclear Berm Fails SUBHEAD: A 2000' long inflatable berm protecting the nuclear plant collapsed after being punctured by heavy equipement. By AP Staff on 27 June 2011 for Associated Press - ( A berm holding the flooded Missouri River back from a Nebraska nuclear power station collapsed early Sunday, but federal regulators said they were monitoring the situation and there was no danger.

The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station shut down in early April for refueling, and there is no water inside the plant, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said. Also, the river is not expected to rise higher than the level the plant was designed to handle. NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said the plant remains safe.

The federal commission had inspectors at the plant 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Omaha when the 2,000-foot (610-meter) berm collapsed about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Water surrounded the auxiliary and containment buildings at the plant, it said in a statement.

The Omaha Public Power District has said the complex will not be reactivated until the flooding subsides. Its spokesman, Jeff Hanson, said the berm wasn't critical to protecting the plant but a crew will look at whether it can be patched.

"That was an additional layer of protection we put in," Hanson said.

The berm's collapse didn't affect the reactor shutdown cooling or the spent fuel pool cooling, but the power supply was cut after water surrounded the main electrical transformers, the NRC said. Emergency generators powered the plant until an off-site power supply was connected Sunday afternoon, according to OPPD.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said the loss of the berm at Fort Calhoun nuclear plant doesn't threaten the safety of the plant.

"There are other structures and systems in place that can ensure they will continue operating safely," Jaczko said.

Jaczko will tour the Fort Calhoun plant Monday. His visit was scheduled last week. On Sunday, he toured Nebraska's other nuclear power plant, which sits along the Missouri River near Brownville. Cooper nuclear power plant is about 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of Omaha and run by the Nebraska Public Power District.

Jaczko said he can't predict what the river will do this summer but that NPPD and OPPD seem to be taking appropriate steps to defend against flooding.

Jaczko spent much of his tour of Cooper asking NPPD officials and the NRC's local inspectors questions about the plant and this year's flooding. He said his visit was designed to gather information.

NPPD officials have been monitoring river levels closely during the flooding, and they have already brought in more than 5,000 tons of sand to build barricades protecting the Cooper plant, the onsite power substations and the plant's access roads.

Accessing critical parts of the plant requires visitors to use ladders or steel stairs to climb over sandbag barriers both outside and inside the doors. When the Jaczko saw one of Cooper's two back-up diesel generators, he had to climb over three different sandbag barriers to get there.

The Cooper plant remains dry because it sits at an elevation above the river level. The base of Cooper and its storage area for used nuclear fuel is 903 feet (275.23 meters) above sea level while on Sunday the river was just above 899 feet.

Cooper would be shut down if the river rose to 902 feet (274.93 meters) above sea level, but officials say that is unlikely.

"This plant is designed to deal with a flood much higher than we are seeing - 906 feet," Jaczko said.

Both nuclear plants issued flooding alerts earlier this month, although they were routine as the river's rise has been expected. Cooper has been operating at full capacity.

Flooding remains a concern all along the Missouri because of massive amounts of water the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released from upstream reservoirs. The river is expected to rise as much as 7 feet (2 meters) above flood stage in much of Nebraska and Iowa and as much as 10 feet (3 meters) over flood stage in parts of Missouri.

The corps expects the river to remain high at least into August because of heavy spring rains in the upper Plains and substantial Rocky Mountain snowpack melting into the river basin.

Fire Crews fight Los Alamos blaze By Staff on 27 June 2011 for Environment News Service - ( Image above: Fire crews fight Las Conchas wildfire threatening Los Alamos nuclear facility. From ( Fire crews have contained a wildfire in a remote outdoor area of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is responsible for ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons.

Emergency officials say the Las Conchas fire, which had burned to the southern edge of New Mexico State Route 4 at the lab's southwest boundary, crossed the road to the north early this afternoon.

Air crews dumped water at the site within the lab's Technical Area 49 and brought the fire under control.

The wildfire forced a shutdown of the Los Alamos National Laboratory today and the lab will remain closed on Tuesday. The city of Los Alamos is under a mandatory evacuation order.

Las Conchas wildfire in the Santa Fe National Forest, June 26, 2011 (Photo by MyEyeSees)

Lab officials said in a statement today, "All hazardous and radioactive materials remain accounted for and are appropriately protected, as are key Lab facilities such as its proton accelerator and supercomputing centers.

"It's been a very long night for the fire crews," said Lab Director Charles McMillan. "There has been an outpouring of support from the region, the state, and the federal government and for that we are profoundly grateful."

Environmental specialists are mobilized and monitoring air quality, but say the principal concern is smoke. A plume of black and grey smoke was visible as far away as Santa Fe, 35 miles to the southeast and also in Albuquerque, 98 miles to the south.

Technical Area 49, where the fire entered Los Alamos National Laboratory property, is used by the lab's Hazardous Devices Team as a training area and as an isolated location for blowing up suspect packages.

The site is also the location of the laboratory's Antenna and Pulse Power Outdoor Range User Facility, where outdoor tests are carried out on materials and equipment components that involve generating and receiving short bursts of high-energy, broad-spectrum microwaves.

TA-49 is surrounded by a locked security fence, which prevents accidental intrusion. When experiments are conducted, personnel install barriers that exclude unauthorized individuals from access to areas where unsafe levels of energy could be encountered.

Laboratory officials said tonight that the area had been thinned of ground fuels in recent years.

"About one acre burned and the lab has detected no off-site releases of contamination," the lab statement said. "No other fires are currently burning on lab property, no facilities face immediate threat, and all nuclear and hazardous materials are accounted for and protected."

"Environmental sites are being monitored and air quality experts are coordinating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," the lab stated.

The Las Conchas fire started on private land at 1:00 pm Sunday. Red flag conditions - hot temperatures, low humidity and high winds - contributed to the intense fire behavior and rapid fire growth, fire officials said today.

The wildfire is burning in the Jemez Ranger District, Santa Fe National Forest, about 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos. The flames have charred 43,597 acres in forests, canyons, and mesas to the south and west of the national lab.

The town of White Rock remains under voluntary evacuation. Cochiti Mesa, Las Conchas, Bandelier National Monument, and campgrounds near the fire were evacuated Sunday. About 100 residents evacuated from Cochiti Mesa and Las Conchas. Power and phone lines are down in the area.

The Bandelier National Monument will be closed for at least three days due to the fire.

The cause of the Las Conchas fire is unknown; it is under investigation.


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