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The Nation

March 29, 2011

Long blackouts pose risk to US reactors

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

"Clearly the coping duration is an issue on the table now," said Biff Bradley, director of risk assessment for the Nuclear Energy Institute. "The industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have to go back in light of what we just observed and rethink station blackout duration."

David Lochbaum, a former plant engineer and nuclear safety director at the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, put it another way: "Japan shows what happens when you play beat-the-clock and lose."

Lochbaum plans to use the Japan disaster to press lawmakers and the nuclear power industry to do more when it comes to coping with prolonged blackouts, such as having temporary generators on site that can recharge batteries.

A complete loss of electrical power, generally speaking, poses a major problem for a nuclear power plant because the reactor core must be kept cool, and back-up cooling systems — mostly pumps that replenish the core with water— require massive amounts of power to work.

Without the electrical grid, or diesel generators, batteries can be used for a time, but they will not last long with the power demands. And when the batteries die, the systems that control and monitor the plant can also go dark, making it difficult to ascertain water levels and the condition of the core.

One variable not considered in the NRC risk assessments of severe blackouts was cooling water in spent fuel pools, where rods once used in the reactor are placed. With limited resources, the commission decided to focus its analysis on the reactor fuel, which has the potential to release more radiation.

An analysis of individual plant risks released in 2003 by the NRC shows that for 39 of the 104 nuclear reactors, the risk of core damage from a blackout was greater than 1 in 100,000. At 45 other plants the risk is greater than 1 in 1 million, the threshold NRC is using to determine which severe accidents should be evaluated in its latest analysis.

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