Flooding that threatens two Midwest nuclear power plants and fire that reached the edge of the top U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory put U.S. nuclear safety in the news this week. Government officials responded with assurances that all facilities had adequately safeguards in place to ride out natural disasters.

River Flooding Affects Nuclear Plants

On Monday, The New York Times reported that Fort Calhoun, one of the two nuclear plants on the flooding Missouri River, "came under increased pressure for a brief period on Sunday" when some heavy equipment "nicked an eight-foot-high, 2,000-foot-long temporary rubber berm, and it deflated. Water also began to approach electrical equipment, which prompted operators to cut themselves off from the grid and start up diesel generators." The facility returned to grid power later in the day. It is operated by Omaha Public Power District and located north of Omaha. Fort Calhoun, had been shut down since April for refueling but stayed closed in anticipation of flooding.

Cooper Station, near Brownville, Neb., is owned by Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) and is still operating. Storms and tornados that damaged transmission lines and cut power to customers last week seemed to be of more immediate concern to NPPD.

When asked on CBS’s "The Early Show" on Tuesday about the possibility of a Fukushima Daiichi-type incident at the two plants, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who had just visited them, responded, "All of the vital systems, the electrical distribution systems, are being protected. They have emergency backup diesel generators in the event that they would lose their normal power supplies. So we think that all the right systems are in place. But just to be sure we have our inspectors here making sure, ’round the clock, that all the right precautions are being taken."

[Update 4:30 EST: It should be noted that nuclear plants are not the only ones facing difficulties as the result of flooding. The Kansas City Business Journal wrote about an hour ago that "buses and perhaps boats" would bring essential workers to Kansas City Power & Light’s Iatan Power Plant, the area’s largest, beginning immediately. Nonessential employees are being told not to report for work, but "the plant won’t shut down unless the Missouri River water elevation reaches 785 feet above sea level."]

Public Perceptions of Nuclear Safety

Reuters reported that residents near the two Nebraska nuclear plants seem unperturbed about flooding so near the reactors. Their attitudes are in line with results of a nationwide survey of adults who live within 10 miles of U.S. nuclear energy facilities, conducted June 11 to 18. A June 27 press release from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the lobbying group for the industry, said that "Eighty percent of residents living near nuclear energy facilities favor the use of nuclear energy as one way to provide electricity in the United States. Half of them ‘strongly favored’ the use of nuclear energy, compared to 11 percent who were "strongly opposed.’"

"Americans believe that companies that operate nuclear energy facilities are taking appropriate safety measures and are prepared for the most severe events that could impact U.S. reactors," the release concluded.

Another factor behind the strong public support reported in this poll, limited to residents near nuclear plants, "is the central role the nuclear energy facilities play in the local economy and the life of the community. Large majorities agreed that the plant helps the local economy (87 percent) and provides good jobs for local people and local businesses that provide services to the plant (also 87 percent)."

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, a nuclear plant is even becoming a tourist destination-though the circumstances are unusual, to say the least. An AFP story reported on Tuesday that ecotourism travelers can visit a remote turtle sanctuary and then, if they "feel too weary to make the three-hour bus drive back to Manila … they can stay at a guesthouse overlooking pristine South China Sea waters" at the private beach belonging to the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

The 620-MW plant, built nearly three decades ago at a cost of about $2.3 billion while Ferdinand Marcos was in power, has never generated power and "continues to cost taxpayers more than $10,000 a day to maintain," according to the AFP story. The overthrow of Marcos in 1986, concerns about nuclear power that were elevated by the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and worries about the plant being sited close to an earthquake fault all led to the plant’s stillborn status. Turning the site into a tourist attraction is designed to raise money to offset the costs of maintaining it, and advocates hope that tours of the reactor will help turn the tide of opposition to its operation. No uranium is currently on site.

Fire Threatens Top Nuclear Lab

Approximately 1,000 firefighters are battling a fire that started about 12 miles southwest of the nation’s primary nuclear weapons and research laboratory in northern New Mexico on Sunday afternoon. The Las Conchas fire, which is now considered the highest priority fire in the nation, reached an outlying technical area of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Monday afternoon. Air crews dumped water on the spot fire within the lab’s Technical Area 49 and brought the blaze under control. It burned about an acre of land within lab boundaries.

The lab and town of Los Alamos sit mostly on finger-like mesa tops, surrounded by forest and separated by canyons. LANL developed out of work on the Manhattan Project in Word War II to develop and test the first atomic bomb, at which point the largely inaccessible location was an advantage. Lab facilities are spread out over more than 36 square miles and include roughly 2,000 facilities, sites, and technical areas.

In 2000, the Cerro Grande wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos. That experience led to the town and lab taking additional measures to prevent and prepare for wildfires.

Though the cause of the current fire remains under investigation, officials say it could have been sparked by a downed power line. Most of New Mexico is experiencing its driest year on record. Fire danger has been heightened by high winds and high temperatures. Mandatory evacuation of the 12,000-some residents of Los Alamos was ordered on Monday. The fire had burned nearly 70,000 acres as of noon today.

At a mid-day press conference yesterday, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D) announced that FEMA would pick up 75% of the cost of the firefighting effort and that he has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to do additional monitoring of air quality to supplement monitoring being done by LANL and the state. Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said that no structures have been lost, and they didn’t intend on losing any. Also at yesterday’s press conference, LANL’s new director, Charlie McMillan, assured the public that there were currently no fires on the site, that facilities and materials were safe, and that there had been no release of hazardous material. Though the lab is also engaged in many types of research unrelated to defense or nuclear materials, it is most famous for its work on such projects, and the presence of radioactive and hazardous materials throughout the site naturally are the focus of public concern when wildfire threatens any part of the complex.

At today’s mid-day press conference, Fire Chief Tucker announced that the fire is moving north, behind the town of Los Alamos, and that firefighters are creating a "black line," a defensible space, along NM 501. Lab Director McMillan said that preliminary results of air sampling (tested by both an external lab and LANL chemists) showed that the results are the same as they would be for any wildfire in New Mexico and showed "no additional material from lab activities." LANL has about 60 air monitors in the region as well as four "high-volume air monitors" out to date, with more to be deployed. LANL staff also conducted additional fire prevention work yesterday around Technical Area 54 (a waste area).

The fire was only 3% contained as of this morning, and the lab has announced that it will be closed through Thursday because of fire risks and the evacuation order.

U.S. and Japanese Engineers Reflect on Nuclear Power

While several U.S. nuclear facilities are being defended against natural disasters and the public weighs media claims and industry counterclaims about the safety of nuclear materials, nuclear engineers are meeting in Hollywood, Fla., for the American Nuclear Society’s (ANS) 2011 Annual Meeting, June 26-30 under the upbeat theme of "Seizing the Opportunity: Nuclear’s Bright Future."

When asked about the conference ANS President Joe Colvin said, "We face a challenge in the immediate aftermath of the incident in Japan, but these dedicated men and women are gathering to share knowledge about the broadest possible range of nuclear science and technology in order to assure their fellow citizens that we continue to rely on and develop this energy source which is vital to the future here and around the world." Colvin said, "This meeting provides a time to present the most recent research and work being done to advance nuclear science and technology applications. This is an especially important meeting in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima Daiichi."

An ANS press release quoted Interim Executive Director Roger Tilbrook as saying, "More and more people today are recognizing the promise nuclear science and technology holds for achieving American energy independence and addressing issues like food safety and medical research. During this meeting, colleagues from around the world will collectively discuss how our latest findings and developments can be applied to help make the lives of people throughout the world better."

The mood among Japanese nuclear engineers is more sober these days. On Sunday, The Mainichi Daily News ran a story titled "Engineers question meaning of nuclear power in wake of Fukushima crisis."  Interviews conducted by the Japanese news outlet with the first class of graduates from the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Engineering, who began their studies in 1962, revealed considerable regret about the way Japan has handled nuclear issues.

"’I should have been more vocal about the importance of anti-tsunami measures,’ Michio Yamawaki, now a professor emeritus at University of Tokyo" was quoted as saying.

"’The very thing that I thought would make lives better has made lives worse. I’ve gone from being disappointed to feeling hollowed out,’ Yamawaki said about the ongoing disaster in Fukushima. ‘But still, we, along with science and technology, must overcome the accident and bring nuclear power under control.’"

Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) staff member Toshio Konishi, 70, speculated that experts’ attitudes changed over the years: "As they promoted the use of nuclear power, the attitude, ‘we don’t think there will be any accidents’ somehow turned into ‘there won’t be any accidents.’" Nevertheless, Konishi doesn’t think Japan should completely abandon nuclear power.

The article concluded by noting that "Every one of them seemed to be struggling with a sense of emptiness, asking themselves the meaning of nuclear energy, to which they had dedicated most of their lives."

Confirming the importance of attitudes toward nuclear power, on Saturday, The New York Times ran a story about how exhibits using Alice in Wonderland characters in "lavish, fantasy-filled public relations buildings that became tourist attractions" may have led the public, regulators, and even nuclear industry experts to too-readily accept what is now being called the "safety myth" that Japan’s nuclear reactors were completely safe.

Despite Japan’s leadership in robotics, nuclear plant operators assumed that robots would not be needed to deal with an accident. The Times quoted Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, 77, an engineer and a former president of the University of Tokyo, as saying, "Instead, introducing them would inspire fear, they said. That’s why they said that robots couldn’t be introduced."

Even though Yoshikawa, a robotics expert, was among those who built a prototype called Mooty that was designed to handle high levels of radiation and navigate rubble that might be expected as a result of a nuclear accident, the robots were not put into production. Consequently, after the Fukushima accident, Japan had to rely "an emergency shipment of robots from iRobot, a company in Bedford, Mass., more famous for manufacturing the Roomba vacuum. On Friday, Tepco deployed the first Japanese-made robot, which was retrofitted recently to handle nuclear accidents, but workers had to retrieve it after it malfunctioned."

Yoshikawa told the Times that Japan’s rejection of robots designed to respond to nuclear accidents "was part of the industry’s overall reluctance to improve maintenance and invest in new technologies."

Japan, Still Struggling to Control Damaged Reactors, Votes to Continue Support for Nuclear Power

The earthquake and tsunami that wreaked enormous havoc at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s  Fukushima Daiichi power plant hit more than three months ago, but the crisis is far from over. The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that TEPCO had started but then stopped "an operation to use filtered contaminated water to cool reactor cores.

"The process, an important step in resolving the crisis at the plant, was in operation just 90 minutes, beginning Monday afternoon, before it was suspended because of leakage."

Despite the difficulty of dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, Bloomberg reported today that TEPCO shareholders voted yesterday in favor of continuing to back nuclear power. It was the first annual meeting "since the crisis at its Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant wiped about $36 billion off its market value." Today, Kansai Electric Power Co. followed suit when its shareholders rejected a motion to halt reactors.

Reporting on public opposition to nuclear power, Japan’s The Mainichi Daily News said today that "Angry shareholders of Japan’s powerful utility firms made high-profile calls for the shutdown of nuclear power plants on June 29." The paper also noted that "The number of shareholders attending the Tohoku Electric meeting stood at 1,279 as of 11 a.m., against 904 last year. Tohoku Electric owns the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, and the Higashidori Nuclear Power Plant in Higashidori, Aomori Prefecture. Operations at both plants have been suspended."

"’Everybody in Japan has a stake in the country’s energy future, even if they don’t own a stake in a power company,’ Jeff Kingston, head of Temple University’s Asian Studies program at its Tokyo campus," told Bloomberg by telephone. "The utilities are ‘trying as desperately as possible to circle the wagons, marginalize public opinion and proceed with business as usual,’ he said."

(See also last week’s related story on nuclear plant safety.)

Sources: POWERnews, NEI, LANL, Santa Fe New Mexican, KOBTV, The New York Times, Reuters, ANS, The Mainichi Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, journal.com.ph, CBS, Bloomberg, KSFR, Kansas City Business Journal