Safety a priority at nuclear plant in Byron, Ill.
The Byron nuclear plant in Illinois is engineered to withstand an earthquake between 6.0 and 6.9 on the Richter scale.
BYRON, ILL. The earth rocked, the tsunami rolled and Japan’s nuclear disaster got the undivided attention of every nuclear plant operator in the world.
That includes Tim Tulon, who runs the Exelon nuclear power plant in Byron, Ill., about 50 miles southwest of Janesville.
“It was tough to watch,” said Tulon, who prefaces any discussion about the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear complex with the disclaimer that generalities—not specifics—are known about the March 11 disaster.
“It appears the unit survived the quake very well; it did not survive the tsunami.”
The situation in Japan also got the attention of people who want to know if such a disaster could happen in their backyards.
Sitting in his office at the Byron Generating Station, Tulon qualifies his answers, preferring to address specific risks individually.
A repeat of Japan?
It’s not likely, Tulon said.
The Byron plant is engineered to withstand an earthquake between 6.0 and 6.9 on the Richter scale. That’s a design feature for an earthquake centered at the plant site, which means it could withstand a stronger quake with an epicenter hundreds of miles away.
The famed earthquakes of New Madrid, Mo.—450 miles from Byron—registered about 7.5 on the Richter scale when they struck in 1811 and 1812. The U.S. Geological Survey pegs the chances of a reoccurrence in the next 40 years at 7 percent to 10 percent.
“Generally, we’re not thought to be in a seismic zone in Byron,” Tulon said, noting that the plant’s components are protected in reinforced concrete that far exceeds historical earthquake risk data.
At about 870 feet above sea level and 950 miles from the nearest ocean, Byron is not likely to be swamped by a tsunami. If a tsunami did reach Byron, Tulon said, the status of the nuclear plant would be far down the list of catastrophic concerns.
A 19-foot seawall protected the Fukushima plant, but it was no defense for the 46-foot wave that arrived nearly an hour after the earthquake in Japan.
“That was a tremendous challenge to deal with,” Tulon said. “We’re not worried about a tsunami here.”
As any neighbor knows, the Rock River often overflows its banks. In 2008, it did so in record style.
The Byron Generating Station is both neighbor and partner with the Rock River, which is the main source of water to cool the plant’s two nuclear reactors and used fuel pool.
The plant is 146 feet above the river. Its highest recorded flood level is 53 feet—93 feet below the plant’s footings.
Tulon said the plant’s emergency systems are protected from water incursion with watertight doors, specially designed flood barriers and key equipment located far above potential flood levels.
A loss of power
The plant’s electricity comes from an independent switchyard that’s connected to the power grid by four transmission lines.
Should that fail, the plant has four diesel generators that would kick on immediately. They could run around the clock for months, and underground tanks that can be refilled as needed fuel the generators that are housed in a separate reinforced concrete rooms.
Four banks of large emergency batteries back up the generators. They are capable of running for at least four hours to provide power for a safe shutdown and cooling of the plant.
Tulon said that the greatest environmental threat to the plant’s power capacity most likely would be in the form of a tornado.
While Tulon won’t say it directly, visitors get the sense that Byron officials are much more concerned about a potential attack from people rather than Mother Nature.
To that end, Exelon is deadly serious about plant security. The company in the last 18 months has spent more than $11 million on detection systems, fencing and barriers at Byron.
That’s on top of millions spent on security upgrades after 9/11, an event that changed the face of security forever.
On a recent visit, the first person a Gazette reporter and photographer saw on the site was carrying an M-16 assault rifle.
Thirty minutes later, the pair cleared an initial security check and entered the first of several turnstiles and checkpoints they would encounter during a plant tour.
The plant has more than 100 officers and supervisors patrolling the facility.
Security is certainly sensed but rarely seen.
“It’s there,” Tulon said. “You will not see all of our security strategy.”
Each August, the plant’s security team engages in what’s called a “Force on Force” drill against a team of former federal special operations agents.
“Everyone has laser-enabled service rifles, and it’s basically a huge game of laser tag,” Tulon said. “They physically try to take the plant.
“We have to win, and we do.”
While the Byron team usually wins, it always walks away with a sense of plant vulnerabilities that need to be shored up.
“The federal government determines the threat levels, and we have to be able to defend against them,” he said.
After 9/11, nuclear plant operators became more concerned about attacks from the air, Tulon said.
Such an attack—a terrorist flying a plane into the 1,800-acre site—could create problems if it happened at non-nuclear portions of the facility, such as the turbine facility or dual, 495-foot-tall cooling towers.
The reactor containment building, however, has thick reinforced concrete walls that Tulon said would crumple an incoming plane.
“That’s something we are always looking at and bringing additional equipment, upgrades and redundancies into play,” he said.
Nuclear fuel storage
The basis for the Byron plant, as well as other nuclear power facilities, are fuel assemblies, also called fuel rods, solid structures made with numerous uranium-filled pellets.
Each eraser-sized pellet produces the same amount of energy as 2.5 tons of wood, three barrels of oil or one ton of coal.
When plants are done with fuel assemblies, they typically are stored in fuel pools, which are steel-lined, concrete vaults filled with water. There, they cool rapidly but continue to be radioactive.
National energy policy designated a site—Yucca Mountain, Nev.—as a national repository for spent fuel assemblies. More than $12 billion dollars and generations of politics later, Yucca Mountain has yet to accept any of the 65,000 tons of spent fuel now stored near reactors in 33 states.
In addition to wet storage, nuclear plants store the spent rods in dry casks, which are round concrete containers lined with steel.
“You can walk right up to them and hug them without any danger of being exposed to radiation,” Tulon said.
The Byron facility—where the safety manual is the gospel—started moving used rods to dry casks last year. It has six that contain a total of 192 used assemblies on its outdoor storage pad. Each cask can withstand heat up to 1,475 degrees and winds up to 360 mph.
Inside the plant, another 2,559 spent fuel assemblies bathe in the pool, which has capacity for nearly 3,000 assemblies.
“The reason most are under water is because we were waiting for a national spent fuel repository to be built,” said Paul Dempsey, Byron’s communications manager. “When it became apparent the government wasn’t going to meet its obligation to do that, we started the dry cask process.”
Since Byron’s two units went online in 1985 and 1987, the facility has generated spent fuel assemblies that would fill a four-car garage, Tulon said.
Volume-wise, that’s considerably less waste than that produced by coals plants, which generate just more than half of the nation’s electricity.
Tulon said nuclear energy has the lowest environmental impact of any major source of electricity, and it is by far the largest source that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases.
“Still, it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” he said.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
That’s the strategy in Rock County and beyond when it comes to responding to a nuclear incident at the Byron Generation Station about 50 miles southwest of Janesville.
The nuclear plant is required to stage an extensive drill every two years with first responders within a 10-mile radius of the plant. Federal officials grade the drill.
In off years, the plant conducts a wide variety of other drills, said Paul Osgood, a spokesman with Exelon, which owns and operates the Byron facility.
“In a very hypothetical situation, if something were to drift (toward Rock County and Wisconsin), there would be a series of handoffs to other responders,” Osgood said. “We would provide the information, and they would make any declarations.”
In Wisconsin, the Department of Public Health and the Division of Emergency Management have a “Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program” that’s responsible for developing and maintaining and executing nuclear incident emergency plans.
Primarily, those plans are directed at the Kewaunee and Point Beach nuclear plants along Lake Michigan southeast of Green Bay and the Prairie Island plant just across the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minn.
Lori Getter, public information officer with the emergency management division, said the plans include detailed incident response plans, equipment and trained staff.
The division, she said, is prepared to help counties with a radiological incident.
Getter said that while the state’s response plans primarily target nuclear plants and storage facilities in Wisconsin, they would easily be applied to a situation emanating from the Byron plant.
Shirley Connors, Rock County emergency management coordinator, said county responders and the Local Emergency Planning Committee would use their network to work with the state if the situation warrants.
“The key thing we would do is communicate with the public,” Connors said.
Local hospitals have plans to deal with a nuclear incident, but the plans are targeted more at their own facilities, employees, patients and visitors than the general public.
“People affected by radiation would not likely be transported here, and if they were, they’d likely be segregated outside the facility,” said Morgan Landi, safety and risk manager for Mercy Health System, which operates Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville.
Landi said Mercy and other Wisconsin hospitals are not equipped to deal with a widespread nuclear situation. Most, she said, have internal decontamination rooms that are designed for chemical situations involving one or two people.
“We all have mobile decontamination, but all we’re really prepared to do is chemical decontamination,” she said.
Landi said the hospital has internal plans to alert staff that a contamination incident has occurred and the risks it carries.
The hospital, she added, is prepared to work with local, state and federal authorities in response to a nuclear incident.
When it opens early next year, St. Mary’s Janesville Hospital will have an emergency preparedness team modeled after its team at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison.
In the event of a nuclear hazard, the hospital would launch its disaster plan, and the top incident command positions would determine what parts of the plan to enact.
“There would be extensive communication with other health care providers and the state to ensure everyone is working from the same page,” said Steve Van Dinter, a spokesman for SSM Health Care of Wisconsin.
A nuclear hazard would pose a couple of challenges, he said.
“The first would be how to treat the patients coming in that may have been exposed to radiation while also protecting our staff from any hazards,” Van Dinter said. “Secondly, if the radiation plume were to drift north, and patients were in need of evacuation, we would work with hospitals in other parts of the state to find out where there was extra bed capacity and then transport those patients there.”