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Nuclear industry agrees, safety job 1

Since the disaster that struck Japan and damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a renewed focus on the safety of nuclear power plants has arisen across the country.

First, we must all continue to send our heartfelt prayers and support to the people of Japan in this most difficult time.

Next, it is important that we understand what caused the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

After one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history, the Fukushima nuclear plant’s reactors performed exactly as they were designed to — they shut down automatically. The tsunami caused the most significant problems thereafter. An estimated 60 foot wall of water then disabled emergency back-up generators and swept away the diesel fuel supplies which were used to keep the reactors cool during an automatic shutdown. With the back-up generators disabled, diesel fuel swept away, and emergency battery capacity depleted, the reactors began to overheat, causing the problems we have all watched during recent days.

In Mississippi earthquakes are rare and the threat of a tsunami is virtually non-existent. Our more common concern is the threat of a hurricane or tornado. The Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Port Gibson continued its normal and safe operations despite the force of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and other powerful storms in the past. The power plant is staffed by men and women who are trained to maintain safe operations utilizing hardened infrastructure, advanced technologies and redundant back-up power sources even when challenged by the most severe forces of nature.

Mike Womack, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has pointed out that both Grand Gulf Nuclear Station and the River Bend Nuclear Station in St. Francisville, La., face of only “moderate” earthquake damage, noting great distance between both plants and the New Madrid fault.

Even though the real life situations in Mississippi and those in Japan are not comparable, it is nonetheless appropriate to discuss nuclear safety and identify ways to improve safe operations based on crisis scenarios that provide fresh perspective and data, notwithstanding the tragic circumstances related to them. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant event in Japan will enable the nuclear industry to benefit from lessons learned, and identify areas for improvement in the generation of clean, affordable, reliable nuclear power.

On March 28, 1979, the most serious event in the history of U.S. commercial nuclear plant operations occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. While there were no fatalities or injuries, and the safety systems and equipment worked as designed, there was a small release of radiation into the atmosphere.

Soon after the TMI event, U.S. nuclear industry leaders met to identify ways to implement a culture of continuous improvement in safe operations, reaching four significant points of agreement that were in concert with the Kemeny Commission, an independent panel appointed by the President of the United States to investigate Three Mile Island, as follows:

1. Safe operations must be the most important goal of commercial nuclear power plant operations.

2. Companies who own and operate commercial nuclear plants must unite for safe operations as a shared goal, not a competitive advantage.

3. Nuclear power plant employees must be trained to implement a culture of continuous improvement in safe operations.

4. Technology will be fully utilized to ensure safe nuclear power plant operations.

Turning agreement into action, the Institute of Nuclear Plant Operations was founded “to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability — to promote excellence — in the operation of commercial nuclear power plants.” Since INPO’s inception, safety at nuclear plants across the world has improved. In fact, in more than 50 years of operation there has never been a radiological-related death at a commercial U.S. nuclear power plant.

Our local nuclear plants have proven to be resilient during the most powerful of hurricanes, and the facilities are designed to withstand earthquakes despite the fact that they are far from any probable epicenter. A culture of continuous improvement in safe operations must always be the top priority in America’s nuclear industry.

Fortunately for all Americans, and for the continued production of reliable, affordable, and clean electricity, the nuclear industry agrees.

Glenn McCullough, Jr., a past chairman of TVA and a former mayor of Tupelo, is the chairman of Advance Mississippi, an energy policy organization which advocates for sensible energy policy that will fuel economic opportunity in Mississippi.  For additional information visit: www.advancemississippi.com.

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