Experts: Nuclear plant risk is low

Money likely roadblock to Utah facility, they say

Despite the crisis in Japan, Glenwood Springs resident and former nuclear engineer Eric Kuhn says he doesn’t lose sleep over the prospect of a nuclear plant being built in eastern Utah, and he thinks the risk it would pose to places downwind such as Mesa County would be low.

Kuhn was a nuclear engineer for Bechtel Power Corp. in California until about 30 years ago, when he joined the Colorado River Water Conservation District, where he now serves as general manager. He said that from the perspective of earthquake dangers, which caused the tsunami that has imperiled Japan’s Fukushima facility, Green River, Utah, would be a safe place to build a plant, as would Pueblo County, where another is proposed.

But he thinks the financial hurdles are high for anyone trying to build a domestic nuclear plant and have only been raised higher because of the problems at Japan’s Fukushima facility.

“To me it remains to be seen, especially now, whether you have financial investors who are going to put billions of dollars into a new plant. I think the real impact of the Japanese reactor accident is what it does to potential financing and investors in nuclear plants,” Kuhn said.

By contrast, power plants using natural gas can be built much more cheaply and quickly, and gas is relatively inexpensive right now, Kuhn said.

West Virginia resident Roy Denham spent the winter in Grand Junction and retired about 20 years ago after working 35 years in nuclear safety and environmental-impact analysis for energy and environmental organizations. He believes the proposed Green River plant, some 100 miles west of Grand Junction, would pose no radioactive threat to Mesa County residents because of the distance involved. He also has doubts about the project’s viability.

“I’d be really surprised if a plant is put in Utah, honestly,” Denham said.

Utah has plenty of cheap coal that can be used for power generation, he said. Most domestic nuclear plants have been built east of Colorado, near large population areas with big electricity demands.

Denham said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be interested in whether the group behind the Green River proposal will include any corporations with nuclear experience and whether it will have the financial stability needed to not cut corners.

“Also, nuclear plants require about 50 percent more cooling water than coal-fired facilities of equivalent electric output, and water is not abundant there,” Denham said.

Water has been the key issue surrounding the plant proposal to date. Numerous entities have protested efforts to acquire water from the Green River for use by the plant.

Aaron Tilton, a former Utah state lawmaker and president and chief executive officer of Blue Castle Holdings Inc., the company behind the proposal, said a decision is pending with the state water engineer regarding a proposed change in the diversion point for the water the company has leased.

Tilton said about 18 utilities have expressed “formal interest” in power from the plant, but he can’t name them because of confidentiality agreements. He said about half the power would go to Utah and half to other states. Demand currently far exceeds the plant’s planned power production, partly because utilities in Utah are having trouble getting permits for coal plants because of their high amount of air pollutants, he said.

He said his company has sufficient cash flow to cover the estimated $100 million cost of licensing the plant.

In eastern Pueblo County, a nuclear power proposal by local attorney Don Banner drew hundreds of opponents and proponents to recent public meetings.

What’s shaking?

In regard to earthquake danger, Denham said plants are designed to automatically shut down when quakes occur, and that happened in Japan, but problems arose when the ensuing tsunami caused damage, such as knocking out electricity and cooling systems.

Aside from the inner West’s inherent safety from tsunamis, the locations of the two proposed plants aren’t considered at high risk when it comes to earthquakes.

Paul Caruso, a geophysicist with the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, said Colorado gets quite a few earthquakes near Trinidad south of Pueblo, but they usually are about 2 to 3 in magnitude on the Richter scale. The largest in the state was 6.6 in magnitude and occurred in 1882 in the northwestern part of what’s now Rocky Mountain National Park.

“It was felt all the way from Salt Lake City to Salina, Kansas,” Caruso said.

Quakes are rare in western Colorado and occur infrequently in Moab, Utah, which probably is similar to Green River in quake activity, Caruso said. However, he noted Salt Lake City sits on a large, active earthquake fault.

Jennifer Stark, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Pueblo, said that area gets some tornadoes, but they’re usually weak, with wind speeds often well below 110 mph, and cover small areas and don’t do much damage. Jim Pringle, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said tornadoes in places like the Grand Junction region are rare but not unheard of. A big one damaged Salt Lake City in 1999.

Stark said the Pueblo area gets hailstorms with hail as big as three inches in diameter. But Tilton said nuclear plants are designed to withstand impacts as great as a direct hit from a 747 jetliner.

Kuhn said the situation in Japan shows the need for redundant systems when things such as earthquakes occur. Tilton said his plant would include gravity-fed water delivery to maintain cooling even in the event of a power outage.

Ed Lyman, a senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, said his organization worries that “any perceived reduction in risk associated with something like a passive safety system is then compensated for in the design by shaving safety margin elsewhere. So, it’s really unclear to us if the overall impact of that is an increase in safety or not.”

Downwind concerns

Kuhn said that while the chances for nuclear-power-plant disasters are extremely remote, especially with today’s designs, a disaster in Green River could result in radioactive airborne particles being carried downwind, and possibly contaminating the Colorado River snowpack that is so relied on for agricultural and municipal water supplies.

Pringle said that broadly speaking, winds in the Grand Junction area come out of the west, although there’s a lot of variability, including depending on the season.

Stark said the same goes for Pueblo. When winds do come out of the east there, they tend to be lighter, and the mountains also form a barrier, making it unlikely they’d reach Grand Junction, she said.

Denham said plants are built to prevent radiation-exposure levels not to exceed the maximum occupational allowance at the plant fence line in the event of a “maximum credible accident.”

“The restrictions on these are very tight,” he said.

But Lyman says when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended evacuation within 50 miles of Fukushima, in contrast to its rules for U.S. plants addressing evacuations only within 10 miles, “That certainly is going to raise questions about their assurances about the safety of people who live beyond 10 miles from reactors in the United States.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not respond to a request for comment.

Denham said U.S. nuclear plants by and large have a good track record. There have been exceptions, he said, most notably being the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, but he thinks the industry and regulators have learned from that accident and continually incorporated new safety measures as they have come along.

“There definitely has been a gradual improvement in safety and design of nuclear plants in this country from the beginning,” he said.


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