Japan's current nuclear fiasco and implications for STP

The word “meltdown” goes to the heart of the big nuclear question – is nuclear power safe?  Richard Black,  Environment correspondent with the BBC News tries to answer this question and address questions about what is happening at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.   Click here to read the BBC article.

One issue he does bring up is that Fukushima Daiichi is bound to raise some very big questions, inside and outside Japan including here in Texas.

Last year Nuclear Innovation North America LLC (NINA), the nuclear development company jointly owned by NRG Energy, Inc. (NYSE:NRG) and Toshiba Corporation, announced they had reached an agreement with Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), that owns the Fukushima Daiichi, to partner in the two new nuclear units at the South Texas Project (STP).

Tepco has been implicated in a series of cover-ups down the years.

  • In 2002, the chairman and four other executives resigned, suspected of having falsified safety records at Tepco power stations.
  • Further examples of falsification were identified in 2006 and 2007.

As Austin Energy and CPS consider the Power Purchase Agreements NRG is peddling they should look very hard at what is happening in Japan and at TEPCO’s ability to remain a financial partner in STP.

In a Wall Street Journal article by Rebecca Smith (click here to read the entire article), she writes that the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant casts doubt on the fundamental premise that has undergirded the global nuclear industry for five decades: that engineers can build enough redundancy into plant safety systems to overcome dangers.

Peter Bradford, a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the time of the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 (who has spoken to local leaders in Central Texas about numerous issues that should preclude them from becoming partners in or signing power purchase agreements with NRG in the STP expansion), said that the accident exposes shortcomings in risk analysis as well as in engineering.

“The redundancy, such as it was, obviously was inadequate to the event that actually happened,” he said. He said the problem is that certain risks always are discounted in the licensing process as “so highly unlikely that you don’t have to plan for them.”

He said that may be the case in Japan, with an earthquake that apparently exceeded the level that the plant was designed to withstand, possibly compounded by other unexpected technical problems or by the tsunami. It’s not yet known if operator error may have played a role, as it did three decades ago at Three Mile Island.

“The really important question,” Mr. Bradford said, “is to ask how different licensing bodies decide what risks have to be guarded against and see if that analysis was adequate.”

Even Texas Congressman Joe Barton, who is chair emeritus of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and a strong proponent of the push for nuclear expansion in the U.S. is now saying:

. . . that nuclear plants are designed with earthquakes in mind. “They’re supposed to be double and triple redundant…. If I’ve been to one briefing, I’ve been to a dozen, given by the industry, where they talk about all the safety features and the built-in redundancy features that protect the reactors in the event of an accident, a natural disaster, even a terrorist attack.”

Mr. Barton added that he’s “very puzzled that, even as big as this earthquake was, the plant didn’t meet those standards. That’s something that even proponents of nuclear power want to get to the bottom of…. I believe very strongly in the future of nuclear power, but those who support it have to insist that the safety redundancy features perform.”

To date, the major stumbling block to the US rushing headlong into a “nuclear renaissance”  has been the huge financial cost and risks involved in building new nuclear plants in down economy.  It is tragic and unfortunate that it is taking the failure of these Japanese plants in the wake of what surely is one of the worst disasters in Japanese history to cause the US to look more closely at their rush to increase our country’s nuclear portfolio.