Right now, we are in an unprecedented situation where three of our nuclear sites are simultaneously in danger of floods and fire. So far, there is no immediate concern for panic, but precautions have to be taken. In Nebraska, nuclear workers are knee deep in water due to flooding by the Missouri river. The “tipping point” is when flood waters hit 1,014 feet above sea level. (Currently, flood waters are at 1007 feet above sea level). The NRC and the utility both admit that, if the flood waters pass 1014 feet, then the situation will spin out of control! Even if flood waters rise a few more feet, there could be some equipment failures which can ultimately lead to a plethora of other issues.
Fortunately, the situation seems stable at the present time, but the emergency will last for weeks and there are some eerie parallels to Fukushima. The Cooper Station plant is nearly a carbon copy of the Mark I GE boiling water reactor found at Fukushima. Also, there is nuclear waste at both sites. The Ft. Calhoun reactor has about 600,000 to 800,000 pounds of high level nuclear waste. So the Ft. Calhoun reactor situation is like Fukushima in slow motion, i.e. there is still time to take emergency measures because the crisis is spread out over weeks. But time will tell how high flood waters will rise.
By contrast, the Los Alamos fire is an immediate problem, with forest fires raging at its doorstep. Most of the very dangerous and sensitive materials have been secured and locked down. For example, there are at least 6 metric tons worth of plutonium used in the weapons program stored there. Of immediate concern is Area G, containing up to 30,000 fifty five gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated nuclear waste. These drums are not secured, but are simply stored above ground in an ordinary building and the fire is about 3 miles from these drums.
The danger is that the winds, traveling at 60 miles per hour, engulf the site. (Although there are canyons separating the site from the fire, strong winds can easily carry embers across these barriers). A fire might over pressurize the drums, causing them to burst, and release plutonium dioxide (one of the most toxic chemicals known to science) into the air. Even a microgram (smaller than a dust particle) in your lungs, can cause lung cancer.
In 2009, the Department of Energy issued a report, stating that fire fighters are not well trained to handle the sophisticated equipment and radioactive waste stored at Los Alamos in case of an emergency.
to be continued…
(part 1 of 2)