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The Nation

March 29, 2011

Long blackouts pose risk to US reactors

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

"When you simplify, you always err towards the worst possible circumstance," Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said of the earlier studies. The latest work shows that "even in situations where everything is broken and you can't do anything else, these events take a long time to play out," he said. "Even when you get to releasing into environment, much less of it is released than actually thought."

Exelon Corp., the operator of the Peach Bottom plant, referred all detailed questions about its preparedness and the risk analysis back to the NRC. In a news release issued earlier this month, the company, which operates 10 nuclear power plants, said "all Exelon nuclear plants are able to safely shut down and keep the fuel cooled even without electricity from the grid."

Other people, looking at the crisis unfolding in Japan, aren't so sure.

In the worst-case scenario, the NRC's 1990 risk assessment predicted that a core melt at Peach Bottom could begin in one hour if electrical power on- and off-site were lost, the diesel generators — the main back-up source of power for the pumps that keep the core cool with water — failed to work and other mitigating steps weren't taken.

"It is not a question that those things are definitely effective in this kind of scenario," said Richard Denning, a professor of nuclear engineering at Ohio State University, referring to the steps NRC has taken to prevent incidents. Denning had done work as a contractor on severe accident analyses for the NRC since 1975. He retired from Battelle Memorial Institute in 1995.

"They certainly could have made all the difference in this particular case," he said, referring to Japan. "That's assuming you have stored these things in a place that would not have been swept away by tsunami."

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