Published in the Vancouver Observer | March 6, 2012 | Circulation 150,000 unique monthly visitors
An almost featureless long, flat stretch of highway leads to the Columbia Generating Station, near Hanford, Washington – the closest nuclear plant to B.C. and one that raises questions of how safe Canadians are in the event of a disaster to our south.
Only 550 kilometres from Vancouver, the facility – a slightly newer model than Fukushima’s General Electric Mark 1 plants – rises like a cube from the fields, unlike the famed cones of the Simpsons or the ill-fated Three Mile Island plant.
When an earthquake and tsunami struck the multiple nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan last March 11, leading to a long chain of failures, meltdowns and toxic waste leaks, it caused Columbia’s plant regulatory affairs manager to reflect – and, he told the Vancouver Observer, to act.
The lessons of Fukushima
“After Fukushima, the industry has worked together to try to learn as much as we can from the event,” said Don Gregoire, regulatory affairs manager at Columbia Generating Station, in an interview with the Vancouver Observer. “I know there’s still more to learn.
“It certainly is always a concern in our business. Anything going on in the industry of significant concern certainly does open our eyes and cause us to pause and reevaluate and make sure we do in fact have a robust protection, design, features, and emergency response capabilities. We did, immediately after the event, go through numerous self-evaluations to assess, ‘Are there any areas for improvement?’”
Like the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, Columbia uses a General Electric Boiling Water Reactor 5 – where it differs is its Mark 2 containment system. The Mark 2 system is a “more robust containment design,” said John Dobken, an Energy Northwest spokesperson. Unlike the earlier model, he explained, the newer Mark 2 reactors incorporate their suppression pool (a water-well to control steam releases) inside the plant’s steel and concrete primary containment structure.
While the United States’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) continues its evaluations and suggests upgrades required after the Fukushima disaster, Gregoire said the Columbia plant is built to withstand any number of disasters, from tornadoes and flooding to an earthquake up to 6.9 on the Richter scale – significantly smaller than the 9.0 Japanese earthquake that led to 15,850 deaths. (A 1.0 increase in a quake’s Richter magnitude means it is 10 times more powerful).
“In Fukushima, it wasn’t really the earthquake that caused all the problems – it was the tsunami,” Gregoire said. “In terms of flooding, Columbia is sited far enough away from the Columbia river – if you had a breach of the Grand Coulee dam, and all the dams downstream, we would still not be affected by any of that flooding that would occur.”
But critics warn that basing nuclear plant safety on previous accidents alone cannot mitigate the danger of new scenarios – particularly in light of revelations that terrorists considered nuclear plants as targets prior to September 11, 2011. And Columbia – and its adjacent waste facility, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation – has its share of controversy.
“The fact is, nuclear reactors were never designed to sustain core meltdowns,” Jim Riccio, Greenpeace‘s nuclear analyst in Washington D.C. “The nuclear industry, in its hubris, believes that meltdowns are impossible.
We’ve had a series of meltdowns (globally), but despite these events, the scientists somehow ignore them.”
Riccio also warned that the Hanford reservation is notorious for its unknown stew of toxic waste, which dates back to the earliest American nuclear research in the Manhattan project, which invented the U.S. nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
“They’ve been pouring radioactive waste into these tanks for 50 years,” Riccio said. “You have a witch’s brew – so much crap in those tanks, what I call, ‘Blop, blop, blop.’
“You don’t want to dig it up for fear of blowing it up, so you’re stuck between a rock and hard place.”
A major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest?
One major question arising around the Columbia Generating Station is the likelihood of a large earthquake in the region. Seismologists in Vancouver and Seattle have long warned of an impending massive earthquake, known as a “mega-thrust” quake, where North America’s continental plate ends, producing a larger collision than inland “crustal” quakes.
Although Hanford, Washington, lies hundreds of kilometres inland from the major tectonic plate boundary – which would produce an enormous mega-thrust earthquake of the type experienced in Japan last year – a seismologist at the University of British Columbia (UBC) said there are smaller faults throughout the inland Washington region that could have an unknown effect on a nuclear plant.
“There is the main plate boundary, but as far east as Hanford the plate is nearly 500 km down,” said Dr. Michael Bostock, at UBC’s Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences. “Hanford is probably is beyond the arc… so large earthquakes are not going to occur immediately below that region. That we can say with virtual certainty.”
But, although an earthquake larger than Columbia’s projected maximum 6.9 magnitude is unlikely, Bostock added that even smaller faults could – and have in the past – produce more powerful earthquakes in this region’s history.
“The faults are smaller than the main plate boundary fault, but we have had earthquakes up to magnitude of mid-seven,” he said. “The most damaging earthquakes in Canada were two on Vancouver Island – and both were crustal earthquakes, not plate boundaries.
“The fact (Columbia is) a few hundred kilometres away from the coast would be helpful, but whether that is sufficient – whether a nuclear site is capable of withstanding an earthquake – needs to be modelled.”
Columbia’s regulatory spokesperson said that modelling has already been done – up to a 6.5 quake – and the plant was later upgraded to handle a 6.9. He pointed out that nuclear waste on site is stored securely, either on the factory floor, or outdoors in heavily fortified concrete and steel casks.
But according to some new geological studies cited in the Vancouver Sun, some academics now believe the Hanford area could see an earthquake as big as magnitude 7.5 – larger than the plant’s capacity to withstand. The chances of that are, of course, extremely unlikely – and, unless its epicentre was close to Hanford, the magnitude would lessen by the time it affected the area. But the effects of an even-unlikely event would be catastrophic for the region – and potentially for residents as far north as Canada, where the strongest winds might lead nuclear clouds in the event of a meltdown or system failure in Hanford.
“You can have a major loss of offsite power,” Riccio said. “It could be a tornado, a hurricane, a bad ice storm – the loss of off-site power puts the reactors at risk.
“The industry has been whistling past the graveyard, hoping an event wouldn’t happen here.”
Riccio argued that a decade of nuclear deregulation in the U.S. has increased the danger of an accident. The nuclear industry has lobbied (successfully, he claimed) to reduce government oversight and enforcement at nuclear plants – as a result of positive safety records. He quoted documents which he said prove that nuclear industry lobbyists successfully pushed for less federal oversight as a result of their safety record – a push that included reducing nuclear regulations under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
“They’re not just talking about it — they’ve been doing it for the last decade,” Riccio said. “There’s a big tug-of-war within the NRC agency now about how they’re going to apply the lessons of Fukushima.
“Sadly, it looks like industry is winning the tug-of-war.”
Nothing could be farther from the truth, Columbia representatives insisted.
“We have been operating safely for quite a number of years,” Gregoire said. “We understand there is quite a bit of concern associated with the Fukushima events and the potential impact for the region.
“In the event of something dramatic happening, we have an emergency planning organization that prepares our staff. We run drills at least four times a year. We coordinate with the state and local governments to ensure that appropriate actions are taken in the event of something significant at the site.”
Generating 1150 mW of power – enough to power a city the size of Seattle – the 26-year old Columbia plant stores its spent radioactive fuel partially on its refuelling floor inside of “secondary containment” in the plant, and partially outdoors in “robust” steel and concrete dry casks in a “secure facility” nearby, Gregoire said.
Dr. Bostock said that a massive mega-thrust earthquake – of the type experienced in Fukushima – is expected within the near future along the Pacific Northwest coast, but would primarily impact coastal cities like Vancouver and Seattle. He cited meticulous centuries-old Japanese harbour records, which researchers believe prove B.C.’s last major quake occurred on January 26, 1700 – at precisely 9 p.m.
With a recurrence expected any time in the next 200 years, Bostock said that when it does happen, it will be massive. Whether such a mega-thrust quake would impact B.C.’s closest nuclear power plant – and whether its vats of waste and reactor could withstand it – is a question that many continue to ask.
Columbia has applied for an extension of its licence for several more decades of operations. Many nuclear supporters cite the industry’s low carbon emissions as an example of how nuclear power is better for the environment than coal. Critics, in turn, argue that the debate isn’t nuclear versus coal or oil – but about investing in renewable, safe energy altogether.
As the world remembers the thousands killed by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami a year ago this Sunday, many are watching the U.S. and Canada’s nuclear industry with an especially careful eye this week.