The tsunami that swept over the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan three weeks ago knocked out both the principal and back-up power sources that pump the water that cools the reactors and set off an on-the-brink nuclear catastrophe that is still not resolved. The disaster (which one expert labeled "a lot worse" than Three Mile Island but "much less" than Chernobyl) has re-ignited concerns in the U.S. about the safety of nuclear power and spawned a federal review of the 104 nuclear reactors across the country.
"We have a responsibility to the American people to undertake a systematic and methodical review of the safety of our own domestic nuclear facilities, in light of the natural disaster and the resulting nuclear emergency in Japan," said U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko. "Beginning to examine all available information is an essential part of our effort to analyze the event and understand its impact on Japan and implications for the United States. Our focus is always on keeping plants and radioactive materials in this country safe and secure."
Arizona's Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station
Those concerns extend to Arizona and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, about 50 miles west of Phoenix. Palo Verde has three of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors, and is the nation's largest power generator (of any kind, nuclear or other). The electricity Palo Verde generates is delivered to 4 million customers in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.
Last week the Arizona Corporation Commission held what is reported to be the nation's first public hearing into the safety of our nuclear reactors. APS, which operates Palo Verde, was on hand to answer the commissioners' questions, as were a number of other relevant experts.
APS Chief Nuclear Officer Randy Edington explained some of the differences between Palo Verde and Japan's Daiichi plant, where the crisis began with the loss of power to run the pumps that keep the cooling water flowing over the three nuclear-reactor cores and spent fuel:
- Each of the three reactors at Palo Verde has an emergency diesel generator and a backup generator if the first fails.
- The plant also has two natural-gas-burning turbines that can be fired up to supply electricity if the diesel generators fail.
- Unlike the Japanese reactors, Palo Verde's design would allow the plant to vent off steam to the atmosphere without releasing radiation the way the Japanese reactors have.
It's not likely that an earthquake would disable Palo Verde, and a tsunami there is clearly out of the question. But there are, of course, other sources of potential disaster. If the Palo Verde plant were to run out of water, for example, that would pose the same threat as the loss of power to pump the cooling water has in Japan. But APS says that if the Palo Verde water supply were cut off, operators would turn to the more than 3 billion gallons of water stored on site.
The NRC continually monitors safety procedures at Palo Verde and APS directs annual disaster exercises with the NRC, state and local governments. As part of its ongoing emergency planning, APS recently opened its education and emergency operations center in Buckeye, which provides a gathering place for company and community emergency personnel in the event of an emergency.
Moving forward with nuclear power in the U.S.
While APS's explanation of the differences between the Daiichi plant and Palo Verde are reassuring, it is incumbent upon the Arizona Corporation Commission - along with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - to ensure that APS has in place clear, up-to-date disaster response plans and, once we know more about what happened at Daiichi, that APS incorporates lessons learned. I'm glad to see that the ACC and NRC are doing just that.
Clean and Safe Energy Coalition co-chair Christine Todd Whitman wrote in an op-ed that a ban on all future nuclear energy investments and a shutdown of currently-operating U.S. nuclear power plants would be "unwise" and "unrealistic." Nuclear energy provides 20% of the nation's power, and 70% of our carbon-free power - we can't shut off that tap (and expect to replace the power supply) quickly.
But I think it's important not to focus on that aspect right now, because it sounds like we're sacrificing safety for necessity - and I don't think that's being done at all. Leave the "Where would we get our power without nuclear generation?" conversation for another day. Instead let's focus on reassuring the understandably-uneasy American public about the safety of U.S. nuclear facilities - and proving to people what the companies running those plants are doing (differently today than last month) to keep them operating safely.