Nebraska Nuclear Update

Mary Claire Birdsong

Keeping America’s nuclear plants safe in the midst of disasters is the primary concern of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. On Sunday, June 26, an 8 foot tall berm holding back floodwaters collapsed at Fort Calhoun. On Monday, June 27, 2011, the chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, visited both eastern Nebraska plants and reported that they remain safe despite the floodwaters from the encroaching Missouri River. Despite this problem, critical areas containing radioactive material or safety gear remain dry. The key to nuclear plant safety during flooding is keeping the fuel rods cool and covered with water, which requires electricity. Therefore, the plant safety designs include redundant multiple backup methods such as generators and even batteries.

During research for this piece, I was reminded that there are various actors who would seize upon the opportunity to spread nuclear energy fear. Several organizations or individuals fabricated false stories or tried to ratchet up public concern by using words like “government cover-up” and “shocking.” I uncovered three search hits that suggested media cover-ups or “news blackouts.” One domestic story purported that news was not forthcoming from Nebraska on the status of the plants, because there was a mandatory news blackout. Another one, from Pakistan, went the furthest, stating

“A shocking report prepared by Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency (FAAE) on information provided to them by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) states that the Obama regime has ordered a “total and complete” news blackout relating to any information regarding the near catastrophic meltdown of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant located in Nebraska.
 According to this report, the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant suffered a “catastrophic loss of cooling” to one of its idle spent fuel rod pools on 7 June after this plant was deluged with water caused by the historic flooding of the Missouri River which resulted in a fire causing the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to issue a “no-fly ban” over the area.”

In a country blessed with a free press, it defies logic to believe that journalists or the public would docilely accept a media black-out. In the midst of a potentially hazardous event, public scrutiny would not permit a black-out even if the current administration hoped to keep something a secret.

For the new readers’ benefit, I looked up the emergency response system in a local nuclear plant. There is a chain of information and contacts for even the lowest level concern at a commercial nuclear reactor. The following information pertains to Plant Vogtle, Burke County, Georgia.

*Plant Vogtle technical staff (on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year)

*Additional Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power personnel within one hour (as needed)

*Emergency support from a variety of other organizations: the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the state of Georgia, the state of South Carolina, the U.S. Department of Energy, other electric utility companies, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the Nuclear Energy Institute.

*Off-site authorities: Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, local county officials Emergency News Center: Burke County Office Park Hwy 56 Waynesboro, Ga.

Each agency and point of contact provides complete phone numbers and addresses to ask questions or get more information. It appears unlikely that so many agencies could be involved in a media blackout for any facility. My conclusion is that Nebraska’s two nuclear plants are experiencing an “unusual event” and nothing more.

The only thing I would add to the above list of possible responders is something called the Nuclear Consequence Management Response Force. The CCMRF involvement would activate in the worst-case scenario, most likely multiple terrorist attacks, which is well beyond the scope of the Nebraska nuclear sites. This response force, a well-trained group of “first responders,” is a recent addition to Northern Command, based in Colorado, with a mission to assist with the breakdown of civil authority in the case of a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive event.

The numerous agencies and well-secured emergency plans give me the impression that safety is a paramount concern. Practically speaking, there are so many people involved in nuclear energy safety standards that a cloak of secrecy would be extremely difficult to achieve.


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