4 Years after Fukushima Disaster, Nuclear Operators Refine Response at Firstenergy's Beaver Valley Plant, Safety Upgrades Are Underway

By Moore, Daniel | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

4 Years after Fukushima Disaster, Nuclear Operators Refine Response at Firstenergy's Beaver Valley Plant, Safety Upgrades Are Underway


Moore, Daniel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


At the fortified entrance of FirstEnergy's Beaver Valley nuclear power plant - before submitting to the background check, the metal detectors, the puffer machines and the scan of all personal belongings - employees and visitors pass by an LED sign displaying what could be any workplace safety platitude: "Low risk is not the same thing as no risk."

But here, the birthplace of commercial nuclear power, the words carry particular significance, underscoring the U.S. nuclear industry's philosophy shift in the four years after the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that devastated the Fukushima nuclear complex required a soul-searching refinement of risk and a reassessment of preparedness for an industry that has always prided itself on rigid security measures.

"It was never believed that there was anything else you'd have to do," said Tim Green, a project manager at Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station, where he is overseeing the plant's post-Fukushima upgrades. Redundant safety protocols and stringent regulations have always been part of getting a government license, he said.

"But what Fukushima showed us is that there's always something you don't think about that takes away that last thing you're gonna want."

At Beaver Valley, which sits a mere 34 miles from Pittsburgh's city center, FirstEnergy is in the initial stages of rolling out more than two dozen safety recommendations drawn up by both industry and federal regulators after the Fukushima accident. The Akron, Ohio-based company owns three nuclear plants.

While requiring preventative measures such as reassessments of seismic and flooding hazards, the plan's centerpiece addresses how operators respond in the immediate aftermath of any conceivable natural disaster.

"No matter what the issue is, don't worry about what caused it - assume you've lost pretty much everything," Mr. Green explained. "Now how are you going to cope going forward?"

Glued to the news

Like most in the nuclear business, Paul Harden can vividly recall watching the Fukushima accident unfold on television.

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan triggered a tsunami 45 feet high. The wave barreled through the Fuku-shima Daiichi nuclear plant, knocking out power and washing its backup generators and other critical equipment to sea. The loss of power disrupted cooling mechanisms and the reactions began to heat up to dangerous levels.

Nuclear power plants need constant electrical power to run systems that keep cool its ever-warming reactors and used fuel depositories.

"I was glued to the news to try to figure out what was happening and how well the plants were holding up," said Mr. Harden, who at that time was site vice president of Beaver Valley.

Three Fukushima reactors eventually overheated and exploded, releasing a significant amount of radioactive material - about a tenth of that released in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster that killed 28 workers in present-day Ukraine.

Mr. Harden said he immediately went to work in Shippingport.

Within a week, Beaver Valley employees were inspecting flood and seismic protections and other critical infrastructure at the plant. Mr. Harden tried to glean some early analysis of what had gone wrong in Japan from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an Atlanta-based group founded by the industry after the Three Mile Island accident in Dauphin County in 1979 for the purpose of sharing operational practices and setting performance objectives.

"We asked the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations to be the coordinator, to help get the right technical brain-trust of the industry together to determine what we can do in this country to avoid such a tragedy," he said.

The industry prides itself on moving more quickly than its regulators. When the U. …

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