Nuclear safety expert pushes to upgrade S.C. atomic plants

sfretwell@thestate.comMarch 19, 2013 

South Carolina’s atomic power plants are potentially more vulnerable to disasters than a Japanese reactor involved in a rare radiation leak two years ago, a national nuclear safety advocate said this week during a visit to the Palmetto State.

David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the state’s seven reactors are not now dangerous to the public — but utilities need to make necessary upgrades so the plants can better withstand floods, earthquakes or fires.

Utilities should stop dragging their feet and complete the work they already have planned, said Lochbaum, who has been quoted widely about atomic safety. He spoke Monday night at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and was scheduled to talk Tuesday night at Furman University in Greenville.

“We have known safety hazards at these plants, and we have known fixes,” he said in an interview Tuesday with The State. “We have plans and promises, but they are not the same protection as actual solutions when fully implemented. Our call to action is for our audiences to ask, demand, insist or request that these things get fixed.”

Lochbaum’s presentation in Columbia said none of the state’s nuclear reactors meet federal fire code regulations. Nor do any of the operating reactors conform with regulations to provide better earthquake protection, his presentation said. He singled out Duke Energy for missing a deadline to upgrade a fire safety system.

Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the public has no reason to worry about nuclear power plant safety.

“If we had major safety issues, the plants would not be operating,” he said.

Duke Energy, which serves north and western South Carolina, said in a statement that it has taken steps to improve safety since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

“Our nuclear facilities were designed and built to withstand natural challenges greater than what is expected where the plants are located, and additional safety enhancements have been made over time,” Duke said in a statement.

Duke operates six of the seven nuclear reactors in South Carolina, with SCE&G running the remaining plant in Fairfield County about 25 miles northwest of Columbia. SCE&G is building two more reactors to accompany the single reactor at Jenkinsville.

“We consistently work to ensure compliance with all of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s regulations,’’ SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said. The NRC has rigorous inspection processes for all U.S. nuclear power plants.”

Lochbaum said one of his main concerns is persuading Duke to complete a safety system for its Oconee nuclear reactors that would operate if a fire disabled electricity at the plant. The system would keep water in the plant to cool the nuclear reactor and spent fuel pools, either of which could release deadly radiation if it lost water and overheated.

That occurred two years ago this month when an earthquake-driven tsunami disabled a nuclear plant at Fukushima, Japan. If a seawall had been built taller, as recommended well before the storm, the plant could have been protected from flooding that knocked out power, he said. The Fukushima accident was one of the world’s worst atomic energy mishaps.

In Duke’s case, the company has missed a December 2012 deadline for installation of the safety system in case major fires hit the three Oconee plants, he said. The NRC is considering fines against the company for missing the deadline, the agency’s Hannah acknowledged.

“I’d hate to be in (Duke’s) shoes if a fire were to cause a problem and you couldn’t tell the people, ‘We did everything we could’ ” to avoid the accident,” Lochbaum said. “The people in Japan feel betrayed because their government didn’t react to the seawall.’’

Duke’s statement said the company has safety measures in place until the fire modifications are completed.

“This project is receiving the full attention of our nuclear and company resources,” according to the statement from Duke spokeswoman Valerie Patterson.

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