About This Interview
"Five O'Clock Shadow" with Robert Knight: On June 6, 2011, the Fort Calhoun pressurized water nuclear reactor 20 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska entered emergency status due to imminent flooding from the Missouri River. A day later, there was an electrical fire requiring plant evacuation. Then, on June 8th, NRC event reports confirmed the fire resulted in the loss of cooling for the reactor's spent fuel pool. The discussion includes specific details of the technical failures at Fort Calhoun, the risks of coolant loss at overcrowded "spent" fuel pools, and the national hazards of nuclear facilities along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and other water sites during the current period of floods and climate change.
Robert Knight Radio Show, in early June 2011, Part 1 of 3
Announcer: Well today OPPD declares a notification of unusal events at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Station. OPPD did not want KMTV Action 3 News to shoot this video. But because the Missouri River is a public waterway, we feel it is our job and our right to show the
public what is happening at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Station.
Water in many places already up to the buildings, with the flood expected to rise another 5 feet or more this summer. And we are told no release of radioactive material has happened or is expected.
Robert Knight: This is 5 o’clock Shadow on the Pacifica Radio Network. I’m Robert Knight in New York. We continue today our coverage of developing events at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant in Nebraska, just north of the major city of Omaha. During our last report, it was revealed that there had been a Level 4 emergency declared at the plant because of the imminence of flooding from the Missouri River. The Army Corps of Engineers advised that the height of the river would be reaching, or soon exceeding, 1,004 feet above median sea level. And in that interval, the plant was required to go into emergency operations to defend and protect against flooding, of which there have been problems in the past at that plant with leakage passageways at the junctions of walls and of pipes and other related items.
During our last report, yet more news came in that during the day, there was a fire, an electrical fire, in a basement of that nuclear power plant, that caused an evacuation of the plant from approximately 9:30 or 9:40 a.m. local time until after 1 p.m., approximately 1:30 p.m. local time.
During that time, part of the plant was rendered inaccessible because of poisonous gasses and gasses that were used to extinguish the electrical fire. It gets even worse. We now know that the systems that were incapacitated by that fire at this nuclear power plant called Fort Calhoun in Nebraska . . . It had been shut down for refueling, but this electrical fire incapacitated parts of the cooling system for the spent fuel pool. Listeners might recall that one of the great hazards at Fukushima is the tremendously over the fact spent fuel pool at unit #4.
This is an important story and we are honored to have with us one of the most prominent experts on these issues, Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear power plant operator and Chief Advisor for Fairewinds Associates. Arnie Gundersen, what is the latest you know about what is going on and what has happened and been minimized in the reportage generally about the situation at Fort Calhoun?
Arnie Gundersen: Thank you for having me. Your summary was really excellent. The sandbags and nuclear power plants really do not belong in the same sentence and now we are seeing one that is literally putting sandbags up to reinforce themselves against the
flood. I think the real issue here is why are we having the flood?
There is a lot of snow in the Rockies this year, more so than a long time, and all of the dams upstream are full. So all of them are just opening up their water and letting it cascade down to the next dam, which is letting it cascade down to the next dam.
The plant was designed against a flood. It cannot get much worse than this or else it is going to breech the walls. But my concern is, what if the dam breaks? That would be the equivalent of the Fukushima tsunami. These dams are filled to the brim and there is more than one, so it doesn’t mean that the one that is immediately upstream has to break, it is any one of the series has to break, which could inundate this like Fukushima was with essentially an inland tsunami. The dams are not structurally sound or built to the same standards as the nuclear plant, but in fact, the nuke plant is now relying on the integrity of something that is basically a big earthen berm.
Robert Knight: If one of these almost like an electrical circuit in series, resistors in series, if these dams, which we might liken to resistors, any one of them broke, that would put extra stress on all the ones downstream of it, would it not?
Arnie Gundersen: That is correct. It will probably ride out the storm if the storm doesn’t get any worse. They are within a foot or two of what they were designed for and hopefully, it looks like at the flows that are coming out of the dams as the Corps of Engineers has opened the valves, they can just barely get by. But if Mother Nature throws us a knuckle ball here, all bets are off.
Robert Knight: We have seen reports that the water is already treading on the edges and the walls of this nuclear power plant.
There was a television station near the nuclear power site that, despite the admonitions of the nuclear power company because the Missouri River is a public waterway, went boating up to the edge of the plant and saw it at the jeapardy of the encroaching water, 1,004 feet above sea level going up and the Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers says that it is expected to do nothing but rise until well into the summer of this year 2011.
Generically speaking, Arnie Gundersen, plant operator and advisor on nuclear issues for Fairewinds Associates, what is wrong with water in a nuclear power plant? What are the hazards in the basement?
Arnie Gundersen: There is safety related equipment that when the nuclear chain reaction stops and this plant is shut down, it was shut down in April for a routine refueling, and then they said, oh my god we got this flood coming, we better NOT start it back up. It was scheduled to be running by now. But even though it is shut down, there still is an enormous amount of heat left over from the particles that are left behind called radioactive “daughter” products. And we have seen that at Fukushima. The plant is still steaming because of all of that residual heat, called decay heat.
You have got to get rid of that, even after you have shut down the plant and so there are pumps, like the ones that failed last night, that are required to run for months, even years, after the plant is shut down, to keep the nuclear core cool. And of course the concern last night was that two pumps failed in the fire, not the nuclear core, it remained cooled through a different set of pumps, but the pumps that failed last night didn’t cool the fuel pool, so the fuel pool began to get hot. They recovered the pumps and the fuel pool cooled back down again. We all have Fukushima in our minds. Units 4 and Unit’s 3 fuel pool are sitting there smoldering, right on the edge of boiling, and normally these things should be at roughly 60 or 70 degrees. So they are not designed to boil in a nuclear fuel pool.
Robert Knight: In the process of refueling this Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant, does the main assembly, the nuclear pile, does it stay inside the reactor, or is the whole assembly moved to a spent fuel pool? Where is the fuel, I understand that about one third of it, one third of the columns of uranium and perhaps other oxides, were to have been taken out and replaced. Where is that stuff? Is it in the reactor or in the spent fuel pool and what would you estimate to be the capacity of radioactive materials in the pool? And as a follow up to that, Arnie Gundersen, does heating tempt the process of zircaloy hydrogenization?
Arnie Gundersen: There was one third of the nuclear core that has been removed and is in the fuel pool, along with many other nuclear cores. There is 20 years or more worth of nuclear cores in the fuel pool. That is on the pumps that failed last night. So that that generates an enormous amount of heat. The closest example that I could tell you is Fukushima 4, which you recall the pictures of steam just pouring out of that fuel pool. Without water, that fuel pool would boil dry in several days.
Well, the NRC’s position is that you don’t need to call that an emergency pump, because you have several days and you can always spray water in and things like that. The problem with that argument is, that as it is boiling, or approaching boiling, it releases an enormous amount of humidity and that wipes out all of the electrical wiring in the containment. So you don’t want to get anywhere near boiling, and I don’t know that the NRC really understands that issue yet.
The other issue of what is in the nuclear reactor, there is fresh fuel plus two thirds of the nuclear core and the pumps that cool the nuclear reactor, the NRC considers safety related. The pumps that cool the fuel pool, the NRC says are not. And those are in separate cooling systems. They were not involved in the fire last night. But the flood is encroaching on all of that wire. Unlike Fukushima, the diesels are high enough, so that as the flood comes up they will probably be able to retain diesel power. Unless there is a bigger wave from a dam collapse. I think that is the lesson here, that Mother Nature can throw things at us that we did not anticipate.
Let’s hope that a flood like the one we are seeing is as bad as it is going to get.
Robert Knight: This is 5 o’clock Shadow on the Pacifica Radio Network. I’m Robert Knight in New York and that’s Arnie Gunderson in Vermont.
Arnie, one of the beauties of this kind of listener sponsored broadcasting is that we can look in more depth than the superfficial ways in which much nuclear news is being covered if at all. In the past day and a half or so, most conventional press reports simply said well, there was no danger of the release of radiation and did NOT sufficiently, in our opinion, address the issue of the potential heating up of the spent fuel well, the loss of monitoring, or the loss of cooling sytems and such.
Because we have this opportunity, I’d like you, as a nuclear expert, to help us walk through the nuclear event reports from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As of the 7th of June 2011, there was not a report on that day of the electrical fire, after the flooding emergency was declared on the 6th of June.
However, today we now have some items from the NRC’s event reports, which, if anybody needs a frightening bedtime story, just read these each and every day. Arnie, I’d like to actually take some time to be very specific with you so you can translate this for our audience. OK?
Arnie Gundersen: OK, go ahead.
Robert Knight: This is the nuclear event report for the 8th of June, 2011 in regard to the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant. I’m going to read four segments seriatum. Beginning at about 9:30 Central Daylight Time, the licensee noted fire in the west switchgear room. The fire brigade responded and found a room filled with smoke but no active fire. Halon did discharge in the room. At 09:56 CDT, offsite assistance was called and Blair Fire Department responded to the site. Blair Fire Department confirmed no active fire in the switchgear room. All offsite power remained available as well as the emergency diesel generators if needed. The licensee is currently attempting to ventilate the room, a thorough inspection of the affected area, and determine the cause of the electrical thought will be facilitated once the room has been fully ventilated.
What is a switch gear room and what level of disorder was taking place at that time?