The Weakest Link

SUBHEAD: Connecticut Yankee & Fukushima share design and the fate delivered by their weakest link - humans.

Intro by Juan Wilson on 27 October 2012 for Island Breath -

Image above:Workmen on the steel reinforcement of the containment building Unit #1 of the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in Hancock's Bridge, NJ. From (

This is a long intro. You can just skip down to the articles about the weaknesses of General Electic (GE) Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) design. What I wanted to demonstrate with my personal experience was how large complicated human endeavors often rely on the least experienced worker at the bottom of the design chain for their integrity.

In high-school I had shown some talent for painting and drafting. After winning a few local blue ribbons for painting, I decided that was my calling. So, before I ever studied architecture I began the study of painting at Boston University. I dropped out after a year, and moved to New York City.

After waxing floors for three months I got a job working for Morris G. Weiss in Murry Hill, on Lexington Avenue, south of 39th Street. Moe had an art gallery there. He also had an interior design business that designed showrooms and factory cutting rooms for the garment district clothing companies. I drafted interior plans, did sketches of the showroom booths and served Moe coffee in the morning and scotch in the afternoon.

I learned a lot from MGW Interior Design... But what I did not learn about, however was reinforced structural concrete. After a year with Moe I moved back to Boston to be with the friends I had there. However, I needed a job. Back in 1964 the state of Massachusetts was a place with a lot of jobs. I went to the State Unemployment Office to register. They gave me a list of job offers for someone with drafting experience.

The Job
The first place I had an interview with hired me. My boss was a Lithuanian named Apolinnaris Treinys. We was a structural engineer whose firm's name was Litas Engineering. That was the equivalent of calling it Dollar Engineering as the "Litas" was the denomination of Lithuanian currency.

The structural engineering specialty of Litas Engineering was detailing. For Apolinnaris Treinys that required he hire three or four young men at low wages. He then showed them enough to read a structural design plan for reinforced poured concrete. The job requirement was to determine the exact number, size, length, and possible bends for each steel reinforcement bar (rebar) on the drawing.

The information for each bar was entered onto a line on large paper form created by IBM for doing a "take-off" of rebars. Each form was for a specific part of one concrete structural element. They were divided into sections like vertical front bars or horizontal back bars, etc.

Mostly we did Interstate Highway structures. Litas had a contract for all the concrete box-culverts, bridge abutments, spanning decks in Massachusetts. Most of the rebars we specked were #4, #6 of #8 bars (that's a measure of eighths of an inch wide). Litas did a lot of the I-95 and I-495 bridges in the region.

These "take-off" sheets were hand written. When a section was done all the IBM form sheets were sent to Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania. There a key punch operator made a IBM punchcard for rebars in groups. The punchcards could then be run through an IBM computer instructing a machine to automatically cut/bend the reinforcing rods as specified. Groups of bars would be wrapped with a colorcoded band identifying the specific structure and where the bars went.

At first Apolinnaris looked closely at my work before passing it on. After a few weeks I could do rebar take-offs as fast as my two co-workers in our small 5th floor office at 5 State Street in down town Boston. Mr. Treinys didn't look at my work much after that. It was just too boring to bear.

The Nuke Plant
Sometime in 1965 we had a big new contract come into Litas. It was the take-off of the rebars for the containment building for the yet to be built Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. The containment walls were four-foot thick concrete that was reinforced with the largest standard-run bars rolled by Bethlehem Steel, #18s. These were 2 1/4" thick bars placed so close together both vertically and horizontally that you could hardly see through the cage before the forms were in and the concrete poured.

The point I'm making is that the safety of the nuclear power plant was based on the nuclear engineering firms specs that were implemented with the concrete structural design firm's ability that relied on the structural detailer's correct take-offs (me), and then counted on the keypunch operator's accuracy reading the IBM forms and then the correct bundling, unloading and placement of the rebars in the nuclear containment wall... and that just doesn't seem quite good enough. Even if everybody tries to do their job right, there will still be mistakes that nobody knows about,  - or if they did - would have a powerful inclination to cover up.

We kid ourselves into complacency about how things get done in this world. Doing rebar take-offs was mind numbingly dull. I did the work, but, as a twenty-year-old working in Beantown, all I could think about what college aged girl I might be going out with that night... not the possible failure of the Connecticut Yankee plant when I was an old man and the plant was past its shelf-life.

Too Much Radioactive Sea Water

By Staff on 25 October 2012 for Common Dreams -

Operators of Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant are having trouble storing a perpetual accumulation of radioactive cooling water from the plant's broken reactors, the plant's water-treatment manager, Yuichi Okamura, told the Associated Press in an interview this week.

The plant currently holds 200,000 tonnes of highly contaminated waste water, used to cool the broken reactors, but operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, continues to struggle to find ways to store the toxic substance. TEPCO has said they are running out of room to build more storage tanks and the volume of water will more than triple within three years. Okamura said:
"It's a time-pressing issue because the storage of contaminated water has its limits, there is only limited storage space."
After the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe of 2011, the plant's broken reactors have needed constant cooling and maintenance, including the dumping of massive amounts of water into the melting reactors -- the only way to avoid another complete meltdown.

Adding to the excessive amounts of cooling water is ground water, which continues to leak into the reactor facilities because of structural damage.

"There are pools of some 10,000 or 20,000 tonnes of contaminated water in each plant, and there are many of these, and to bring all these to one place would mean you would have to treat hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminated water which is mind-blowing in itself," Masashi Goto, nuclear engineer and college lecturer, stated, adding the problem is a massive public health concern.
"It's an outrageous amount, truly outrageous" Goto added.

Fukushima & Connecticut Yankee
By William Boardman on 11 October 2012 for Newswax -

What the Fukashima?” and dozens of other anti-nuclear messages graced the bridges of the Interstate Highway from Northampton, Massachusetts, to Burlington, Vermont, reminding Columbus Day weekend leaf peepers that were passing close to the evacuation zone of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, still operating past it’s 40-year design life.

“What the Fukushima?” refers to the basic design of  the 1972 Vermont Yankee, which used the same General Electric boiling water reactor technology as the 1971 Fukushima plants that failed in Japan in March 2011.

Vermont Yankee’s original license expired on March 2012, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already granted a 20-year license renewal to the plant’s owner, Entergy Corp. of Louisiana.  The Fukushima #1 plant had been scheduled for decommissioning in 2011, but had been granted a ten-year renewal before the tsunami hit.

Although it continues to keep operating effectively most of the time, Vermont Yankee remains entangled in legal, political, and environmental disputes, in the context of a largely hostile public. The State of Vermont is fighting Entergy in federal court.  The Vermont Legislature has already voted once to close the plant and has passed a tax bill to make up for revenue Entergy presently refuses to pay.

Environmentally, Vermont Yankee has suffered a long string of “events,” including the collapse of a heating tower, various leaks of radioactivity, and seasonal overheating of the water in the Connecticut River.

In September, Vermont started shipping low level radioactive waste from the University of Vermont and a Burlington hospital to Andrews County, Texas, by trucks using public highways. This is the first such shipment under an agreement approved 20 years earlier, the Texas-Vermont Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact.  Vermont Yankee has also shipped some its radioactive waste to the same dump, a 15,000 acre site in a poor area that straddles the Texas-New Mexico border.

The unguarded transport of nuclear waste on public highways has been controversial in the past in relation to nuclear weapons waste.  In Texas, early alarms have been sounded about the safety of shipping this waste to the remote site owned by Harold Simmons, a Dallas billionaire and heavy Republican bankroller, as described in the Dallas-Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The paper also reported: “In the past eight years, 72 incidents nationwide involving trucks carrying radioactive material on highways have caused $2.4 million in damage and one death, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration says.”

The Texas dump expects to receive radioactive waste from 36 states, including Vermont, but this wasn’t the direct target of the holiday weekend banner drop along the Interstate.

“Shut down Before Meltdown” was the message on the bridge in South Royalton, home of the Vermont Law School.  “You Are In A Nuclear Reactor Zone” is said on the Bridge in Bernardston, just over the Massachusetts border from Yankee’s location next to the Connecticut River in Vernon.  Yankee is Vermont’s only nuclear power plant.

The bridge banners were the work of anti-nuclear affinity groups from both states, part of regional resistance to nuclear power older than the plant itself.  Members of the Sage Alliance, the affinity groups’ names include “Shut It Down,” “Sunflower Brigade,” “Downstreamers” and the “VT Yankee Decommissioning Alliance.”


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