Fukushima Disaster Can Happen In The US (Miami Herald, Oct. 16, 2011)

Fukushima disaster can happen here (Miami Herald, Oct. 16, 2011):

South Florida residents should take little comfort in assurances that a Fukushima-type catastrophe could not happen here. Similar claims were made after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Simply put, in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, widespread radioactive contamination occurred in Japan as a result of three electrical system failures. The first was a loss of electricity going to Fukushima. For safety reasons, nuclear reactors must get their operating electricity from offsite sources.

Second, the emergency electric generators failed.

The third system consisted of steam-driven pumps with battery-powered valves and controls. When the batteries ran down, all essential pumps became inoperative. Without cooling water to remove runaway heat buildup, the nuclear plant suffered multiple explosions and meltdowns unlike anything ever seen.

Turkey Point is just as reliant as Fukushima on offsite electricity, emergency electrical generators and batteries. Vulnerable equipment includes transmission lines, the switchyard, the cable spreading room and the control room. Electrical failures can be caused by accidents (explosions, fires, hurricanes, flooding) and by manmade incidents (sabotage, terrorism, hostile military actions).

Currently, Florida Power & Light (FPL) is trying to secure the permits and licenses to build two new nuclear reactors at the Turkey Point site, in addition to the two reactors already there.

These proposed reactors, essentially, are experimental. They are based on new designs from Toshiba/Westinghouse that have never been tested or operated commercially at full scale.

This new reactor design, the AP1000, has drawn substantial criticism on safety issues. One major issue is that the steel inner-containment structure is barely strong enough to keep radioactivity from escaping during a “design basis accident.”

This leaves little margin for error when the steel containment structure eventually corrodes and loses strength. Such corrosion is a common problem in older reactors.

The British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has criticized Toshiba/Westinghouse for not sufficiently demonstrating that the outer concrete shield can withstand an external shock, such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado or impact from a commercial aircraft crash.

Perhaps, the most damaging criticism comes from Dr. John Ma, the lead structural reviewer evaluating the outer concrete shield for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Dr. Ma submitted a “nonconcurrence statement of dissent” stating that the outer shield could shatter like a “glass cup” in an earthquake or commercial aircraft crash.

Despite these concerns and others, the NRC is rushing to certify this new nuclear reactor design. The American public cannot be confident that the AP1000 will not fail, exactly as these experts predict it could.

To ensure public safety, President Obama should not continue to tacitly approve this flawed certification process. To impose financial discipline, he needs to publicly stop all future loan guarantees for the AP1000 until the designs are thoroughly vetted for safety and all valid criticisms have been addressed.

The cost of building FPL’s new nuclear reactors is likely to be astronomical. Guesstimates for the total price tag now range from $12 billion up to $25 billion. As a monopoly regulated by the Florida Public Service Commission, FPL’s allowed return on equity is 11 percent of the utility’s $17.5 billion adjusted rate base. Thus, if the new Turkey Point reactors cost an additional $17.5 billion, a large portion of FPL customers’ electric bills could double.

At a time when governments, businesses and families are struggling to reduce their debts, it is irresponsible to ask American taxpayers to provide billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees for unsafe nuclear power plants — plants that private investors will not fund because they are just too risky.

As the U.S. economy teeters on the brink of a second recession, President Obama needs to realize how out of step the nuclear loan guarantee has become. We need to do better.

Jerry B. Brown is founding professor of Global and Sociocultural Studies at FIU. Mark Oncavage an environmental activist on energy issues and Everglades restoration.

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