Nuclear Safety Forum Held in Solomons About Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant

On Thursday, Oct. 6, the League of Women Voters of both Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties held their second free public educational forum on the issue of nuclear safety at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland, specifically in regards to the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant.

The forum addressed underlying concerns within the community, resulting from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident in Japan this past March. The Concerned Black Men of Calvert County, the Concerned Black Women of Calvert County, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Chapters of Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties, the Washington Chapter of the American Nuclear Society, and the St. Mary’s College Center for the Study of Democracy co-sponsored the event.

The main goal was to “give an update on the safety of nuclear power plants,” said Annette Funn, Director of the Calvert County League of Women Voters. The forum consisted of presentations by seven different panel members, followed by the panelists’ answers to written audience questions.

Erin Alexander, a 2011 American Nuclear Society Glenn T. Seaborg Congressional Fellow, provided a thorough overview of the Fukushimi Daiichi earthquake and tsunami disaster to develop an understanding of the plants and how they affect the United States.

Dr. Thomas B. Cochran, a Consultant on the National Resources Defense Council, followed Alexander, offering a brief assessment of the frequency of potential core melt accidents, including details and statistics about nuclear power reactors and seismic hazards.

Arguing that nuclear plants rely on a nuclear defense system, Dr. Mohammed Modarres, Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Director of Reliability Engineering at the University of Maryland, advocated the re-estimation of the frequencies of events that can exceed unreachable power sources.

Paul Gutner, Director of Oversight Projects of Beyond Nuclear, raised questions about how much confidence should be held in the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant and others within distances that could threaten the community of Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties.

Dr. Charles Martin, Former Chairman of the Nuclear Installation Safety Division of the American Nuclear Society, highlighted the aftermath of the Fukushimi occurrence, but claimed that there is no imminent danger from any United States power plant.

Maria Korsnick, Chief Nuclear Officer and Chief Operating Officer of Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, emphasized Constellation Energy’s commitment to nuclear safety, while George Vanderheyden, President and Chief Executive Officer of Unistar Nuclear Energy LLC, notified the audience that, “we must always expect the unexpected and prepare for it.”

The moderator of the evening, Dr. Zaus Zwilsky, retiree of the National Research Council, asked written audience questions during the panel session, where audience interests ranged from questions about the reality of a tsunami occurring at the Calvert Cliffs power plant and the likelihood of a catastrophic event on the same scale as Fukushimi.

Korsnick explained how nuclear waste is stored on site in one of his answers, while Gunter stated, “The thing we’ll have to worry about is cyber virus and loss of power” more than the threat of an earthquake. “Calvert reactors are located 65 feet above sea level. Flooding from rain with electric blackout of eight to ten hours would be a bigger concern,” Vanderheyden added in a similar response to tsunami safety precautions.

The panel held opinionated views from both sides of the debate for and against nuclear energy, although some panelists felt as if there was an unfair advantage for the pro-nuclear energy argument. Regardless, panel members came to the conclusion that there would be an extremely small chance of an untimely nuclear threat as a result of tsunami or earthquake damages to the St. Mary’s and Calvert County communities, but warned that precautions should still be taken and that safety measures should be prepared if ever necessary.

“We should be concerned more with prolonged power outage,” Gunter added, reemphasizing the rarity of Calvert Cliff experiencing any threat as dangerous as the Fukishimi disaster.

Jim Wishart, a resident of St. Mary’s County, gained more insight into the issue from the forum, but thinks more action needs to be taken to ensure the safety of county inhabitants. “I’m not totally against nuclear, but I’m very concerned with anything that could happen,” Wishart said. “Additional steps need to be taken; the focus is that a disaster could happen at Calvert Cliffs.”

The turnout yielded an “absolutely successful” event, Funn stated, with a crowd consisting of members from sponsors and co-sponsors of the event and St. Mary’s County and Calvert County residents. Richard Yost, Senior Communications Manager for the Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, again emphasized that the purpose of the forum was to educate the public and reach out to the entire community about nuclear energy. “We live here; we work here, too.”

Physically Explaining Japan’s Natural Disaster

Amidst a rush of news stories covering the recent triple-disaster in Japan, it is often hard to fully understand all of what has happened merely from reading about it in popular publications. Three physics faculty members held a special forum to discuss the recent disaster in Japan, and specifically the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant.

Assistant Professor of Physics Josh Grossman explained what happens to the Earth and water during an earthquake and tsunami. All earthquakes are caused by pressure buildup as plates of the Earth’s crust push against each other and become stuck. An earthquake is what happens when these plates suddenly become unstuck and move around. On March 11, that compressed energy was violently released in the form of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, moving Japan and North America eight feet closer to each other.

“A lot of the time it’s hard to wrap our heads around the way a tsunami behaves,” explained Grossman. A tsunami isn’t just a giant wave that heads for shore. It starts out as a barely-perceptible bulge in the ocean, though underneath a shock wave of water is traveling at hundreds of miles an hour, almost as fast as a jet plane. As that shock wave reaches the shore, the sea floor bottom compresses the shock wave into those towering waves that we all think of as a tsunami.

“When the quake hits, the power plants shut down, as a basic safety measure,” explained Assistant Professor of Physics Erin De Pree in her talk about the responses to the disaster. “Then the tsunami hit. This was a problem.”

The tsunami knocked out Fukushima’s backup generators. Four hours after the earthquake and tsunami had struck,  the plant was forced to switch to battery power. The most important thing that electricity did at the power plant was keep chambers filled with waste, called spent fuel pools, properly cooled. After the backup generators were lost, all the energy from the batteries was spent keeping the spent fuel pools from overheating.

“It was scarier than Three Mile Island, because the power shut off in the control room to conserve electricity for cooling the reactor,” said De Pree. The control room was dark, and operators could not read any direct readouts from sensors in the reactor. After less than a day, these backup batteries ran out of power and there was nothing to keep the spent fuel from overheating except the pools of water that surrounded the spend fuel — which began to boil. Since then, all efforts that the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric have made have involved keeping these spent fuel pools from boiling away all the water and risking a nuclear meltdown.

The Fukushima crisis was not the same as the crises at Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. “This is the first time spent fuel pools have been newsworthy since the 1950s.”

Why use nuclear energy at all then, if it’s so dangerous? “If you use one gram of Uranium-235 (U-235) you have 1 megawatt for a day,” said Professor of Physics Katsunori Mita. For the same amount of energy in coal, explained Mita, you would need 2.6 pounds, over a thousand times more in weight. Plus, using U-235, the spent fuel will be converted into Plutonium 239 – which is usable as a nuclear power source. “An amazing thing about nuclear energy [is] you can make more fuel than it consumes,” said Mita.

On top of that, nuclear energy is normally not so dangerous. “When the splitting of the nucleus occurs, enormous amounts of power are released, [but] the reactor cannot become a bomb. That’s impossible. There is not enough uranium,” concluded Mita.