“While the entire city of New Orleans and surrounding areas have been plunged
into a watery blackout, Entergy Corporation is faced with the task of
keeping spent fuel at the Waterford nuclear plant cool to avoid a
potentially deadly situation that could make Hurricane Katrina look like a
gentle preamble to the worst environmental disaster in recorded history.
Some experts and scientists feel that a spent nuclear rod pool, when
severely compromised, could result in a catastrophic fire capable of
dwarfing the Chernobyl tragedy. Others, such as Nuclear Regulatory
Commission spokesperson Victor Dricks, said Wednesday afternoon that the
situation is under control at the Waterford plant, which is owned by the New
Orleans-headquartered Entergy Corporation.
According to NRC spokesperson Eliot Brenner, interviewed on Wednesday
afternoon, the spent fuel rod pool at the Waterford plant is being kept cool
by two backup generators that are being “topped-off” with new fuel each day.
He claims the path to the plant is clear enough to guarantee that the trucks
will be able to continue making the trek, and that another set of generators
have been brought in as a precautionary measure.
The NRC’s official website <http://www.nrc.gov> reveals a checkered safety
record at Waterford when it comes to back-up generators. On April 12, 2004,
the Waterford plant received a letter from Bruce Mallet, the regional NRC
administrator responsible for the area in which the plant is located,
informing Waterford that they had received a “white” warning for a violation
regarding their back-up diesel generators.
Joseph E. Venable, the director of the Waterford plant, was the recipient of
the letter which read, in part:
“The [white] finding involved the failure to establish appropriate
instructions and accomplish those instructions for installation of a fuel
line for the Train A emergency diesel generator in May 2003. The associated
performance deficiency resulted in uneven and excessive scoring of the fuel
line tubing that ultimately led to a complete 360-degree failure of the fuel
supply line on September 29, 2003, during a monthly surveillance test,
rendering the Train A emergency diesel generator inoperable.”
Waterford was given 30 days to supply the NRC with a reply that would
include the reason for the violation, the corrective steps that have been
taken and the results achieved, the corrective steps that will be taken to
avoid further violations, and the date when full compliance will be
NRC spokesman Victor Dricks explained the situation in plain language.
“It’s complicated,” he said.
In May 2003, he explained, Entergy decided to repair a leak on the fuel line
leading to one of the two back-up diesel generators. They went ahead and
made the repair, Dricks noted, without a written set of instructions or a
detailed analysis of the risk associated with such a move.
In September 2003, during a routine monthly check on the diesel pump, it
failed. NRC subsequently conducted an investigation and found that Waterford
had violated NRC regulations, at which point the plant received a “white”
safety rating, indicating a “moderate to low” safety risk.
The mild white rating was given because the diesel generator had not been
required during an emergency between January and September, Dricks admitted,
and if it had been required and failed, Waterford would have received a more
severe color-related code.
“Only one back-up generator is required to operate the cooling system
indefinitely,” he said.
But why didn’t Entergy follow protocol?
“According to their analysis, after they crunched the numbers on the risk
significance, they just didn’t think it was required,” he said, adding that
under “normal circumstances,” the plant wouldn’t need the use of the back-up
generators. NRC disagreed with Entergy’s assessment.
Entergy officials requested that spokesperson Diane Park be interviewed
about Waterford, since she is the media representative for that facility,
but a call to her office resulted in an automated message from an operator
that “due to the hurricane,” the call could not be placed.
A look through Waterford’s safety record on the NRC website reveals a
$110,000 fine on June 16, 1998, when the plant failed to address, among
other issues, that the emergency core cooling system was capable of limiting
peak cladding temperatures to 2200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Waterford, the NRC noted, failed to make timely reports to the NRC and to
develop a corrective action plan within the required time frame.
“Separately and collectively,” the NRC noted, “these violations represent a
failure of the Waterford-3 engineering program to: (1) aggressively pursue
such issues when first identified, and (2) to pursue such issues without
prompting by the NRC.”
Many scientists and nuclear experts, such as Gordon Thompson, director of
the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Institute for Resource and Security
Studies, believe that failure to protect spent nuclear fuel, which is far
more toxic when removed from reactor cores and stored as waste, could result
in an “apocalypse.”
Working on an array of sustainable-energy issues, Thompson’s firm claims a
client list that includes the U.S. Department of Energy, the World Health
Organization, and the World Bank. Thompson has been a persistent force in
the nuclear energy scene, frequently trying to persuade facilities to use
what he considers to be a safer method of storage for the lethal spent fuel.
His preferred method is “hardening and dispersal,” which involves storing
spent fuel in casks that are fortified and separated rather than in pools,
which he considers a monumental mistake that could result in unimaginable
While this kind of thought process might be unthinkable to many, so was the
complete devastation of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina created the
nightmare scenario long feared by many local residents, who knew they were
living in a bowl that could be filled with floodwater at any time.
Even a partial loss of fluid, Thompson said, could cause the rods to ignite
and release cesium 137, a lethal radioactive isotope, into the air.
“Once a pool fire gets going, nobody could approach it. It would be a smoky,
slow-burning fire, giving off this cloud of smoke. It would probably hug the
ground and drift downwind,” he said. He speaks in terms of epic time,
describing a landscape that would remain uninhabitable for generations.
While experts have tried to sound the alarm about the possibility of a
catastrophic fire, nuclear industry insiders feel such as assessment of the
possible danger is exaggerated.
“We are very confident in the safety of the pools,” said Jim Steets, a
spokesperson for Entergy Nuclear, which owns the Buchanan, New York,
facility and nine other plants, including Waterford as well as River Bend,
located 24 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, and Grand Gulf, 25 miles south of
Vicksburg. “The danger of a pool fire is so low, it’s almost nonexistent.
Even if you take the water out, pool fire is not necessarily an automatic
consequence. It’s possible, given a variety of conditions.”
While terrorism is the leading concern among many critics who fear the worst
at nuclear plants, Hurricane Katrina has stripped the illusion that a
natural disaster couldn’t create the same chaos.
Dricks heartily disagrees that a leak of water from the spent fuel rod pools
at any nuclear plant would cause a massive leak of radiation, partly because
it seems impossible that any plant would let a crisis reach that point.
“The NRC has evaluated this scenario and does not find it credible,” Dricks
Waterford shut down on Saturday night at Hurricane Katrina was beating a
horrifically hot and windy path across the Gulf of Mexico. Instability in
the power grid resulted after the storm when power usage dropped due to the
blackout, and Waterford was removed from the grid at that time, Dricks said.
He maintained that despite the blackout experienced by the Gulf Coast, the
plant could go back online at any time if the back-up diesel generators, and
the other pair of back-ups that have been brought in as a precautionary
But there are those who envision a nuclear apocalypse, and the recent lesson
in expecting the unexpected contains a lesson in safety that won’t soon be
“Dry-cask storage maximizes protection,” says David Lochbaum, nuclear safety
engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and former consultant
at Indian Point. “The spent fuel rods are harder to attack when stored that
way, [and] the amount of radioactivity released would be far less.”
“Complacency is really very amazing,” Thompson has said. “The bottom-line
attitude is, ‘We don’t have to do anything about high-density pools because
the danger of a pool fire is so low.'”
The seventy sirens within Waterford’s ten-mile emergency planning zone are
equipped with back-up batteries that Brenner said will be replaced every