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Progress Energy didn't have to hide its agenda; the explicit purpose of the tour was to convince us that a disaster similar to the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan couldn't happen here.

After Fukushima, a tour of the Shearon Harris nuclear power facility 

A puffer machine that detects explosives was one of a dozen security checkpoints encountered on the tour.

Press pool photo by Shawn Rocco

A puffer machine that detects explosives was one of a dozen security checkpoints encountered on the tour.

If you've noticed a flurry of stories in local media outlets spotlighting upcoming safety upgrades at the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant this month, rest assured it's not your imagination.

On Wednesday, May 18, Progress Energy shepherded a group of Triangle media through the plant on a tour that, we were told, is only conducted once every year or two. The Indy was invited, too, and we really couldn't say no. The opening credits of The Simpsons are the closest we've been to a nuclear power plant.

The impetus for this particular invitation, of course, was the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, whose post-earthquake, post-tsunami meltdown will affect the economy and local ecosystem of that prefecture for the foreseeable future. Progress didn't have to hide its agenda; the explicit purpose of the tour was to convince us that a disaster similar to Fukushima couldn't happen here.

We converged first on the education center near the plant, where we were given access to a number of "Our Friend the Atom"-style field-trip exhibits detailing the history of the site, the safety and reliability of nuclear power and the various security and procedural improvements that have been made to Shearon Harris since 9/11. We were then brought in for a brief conference that included Shearon Harris Vice President Chris Burton and other officials.

"Safety" and "reliability" were the buzzwords from this presentation, as were the phrases "looking at everything," "opportunity to learn" and "things we can do better"—though plant officials were quite reluctant to name any particular deficiencies in Shearon Harris equipment or procedures that had been identified as a result of Fukushima. Rather, the official line seemed to be that Fukushima was best understood as an opportunity to recognize that everything at Shearon Harris was already pretty perfect.

At this point we were taken into the plant itself. From an aesthetic standpoint Shearon Harris bears a remarkable similarity to a boiler room from a high school; the design is functionalist well past the point of being ugly. The plant looks older than even its 30 years, with an overriding knob-and-switch motif totally at odds with the smartphones we were forced to leave at the education center. One can only imagine how utterly ancient the plant will seem when it is retired, a scheduled event recently put off 20 more years into the future, to 2046. Taken through the security checkpoint in two vans and outfitted with hard hats, safety goggles and radiation dosimeters, we were given access to the control room, the outside of the reactor and the spent-fuel storage facility—passing along the way through a dozen security checkpoints and radiation detection stations.

On the one hand I can report that the tour was quite compelling. I stood 5 feet from a pool containing nuclear waste and received a 0.0 millirem dose of radiation for my trouble. I saw men with automatic weapons stationed at various key security checkpoints, as well as others touring the plant looking for troublemakers. We heard about the safety benefits of storing spent-fuel in a separate building from the reactor, which the Fukushima reactor did not (with bad results). In anticipation of what will likely soon be revised Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines, plant officials are looking at converting the bulk of this spent-fuel pool storage to what is called "dry cask storage," which does not require active cooling mechanisms. We saw inspectors from the NRC working on-site. We were taken to see a spare diesel generator that had been staged at the site since 9/11, ready to be used if the two backup diesel generators that power the emergency cooling system unexpectedly failed—a safety redundancy the Fukushima generator also lacked.

So in this sense the PR blitz was certainly successful. The general effect of the four-hour tour on me was complete demystification, and by the end I had the jargon down: I was no longer talking about scary-sounding "radiation" and instead using the more medicinal, innocuous-sounding euphemism "dose rate." Upon finishing the tour I recalled the posters one still sometimes sees around town ("Look into my eyes and tell me Shearon Harris is safe") and thought, "Well, it seems pretty safe to me."

But of course I could have taken almost exactly the same tour at the Fukushima site one day before the tsunami and come away with exactly the same impression. The preferred euphemism for what happened at Fukushima, which was used several times during our tour, is "beyond design basis event"—a catastrophe that goes beyond the original specifications and safety requirements that were taken into consideration when the plant was built in the 1980s and therefore would be no one's fault.

During the tour, reporters speculated about what specifically these events might entail, with a particular favorite nightmare scenario being a direct hit from a tornado like the one that struck Raleigh not long ago. Plant officials assured us that the site, especially the cement structure housing the backup diesel generators, is designed to take such a direct hit from a tornado, hurricane or earthquake worse than the worst such disaster historically known in this area. (But of course the Fukushima plant operators could have made this same promise, too.)

Unfortunately, we didn't think to ask about a "beyond design basis event" sometimes speculated by the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN): a direct hit from a hijacked jetliner. (Progress says Shearon Harris could survive even this; NC WARN says the company doesn't have the data to prove it.) Nor did any of us confront what in retrospect seems like an obvious absurdity from our tour: the claim that the portable third diesel generator, bolted to the ground outside the spent-fuel storage, would actually survive whatever disaster had already taken out the concrete bunker housing the other two.

Most of the stories that later appeared in local media gave Progress Energy credit for new safety features that were only potentially going to be implemented, pending new NRC requirements—essentially saying that it's the thought that counts. Signs at the plant still instruct workers to keep radiation exposure ALARA, "as low as reasonably achievable"—which sounds a lot like keeping radiation exposure low, but nonetheless isn't quite the same thing at all.

In a press conference after the tour, Burton gave very convincing, very polished answers to the questions he was given, particularly on the subject of new fire prevention procedures being voluntarily implemented at Shearon Harris that exceed NRC requirements. Safety at Shearon Harris, he said, is "not about money ... it's about what's best for the community we all live in."

But for Jim Warren of NC WARN, it really is about the money. "Progress Energy has a lot of good, dedicated people at that plant and their other plants," he told me when I spoke to him later, "but their management and their business model over the years has been to cut costs, and that involves cutting corners."

To him, the voluntary strengthening of fire prevention procedures is damning, not praiseworthy: "For over 20 years they dodged compliance, and they boast now that they're upgrading their fire protection. Amortize that over 20 years; they made money on that deal."

Warren cast doubt on most of what I thought I'd seen at Shearon Harris, elaborating upon the danger of the wet spent-fuel storage, the various inadequacies of the new fire prevention procedures and the actual ability of cooling systems at the plant to survive tornado damage (not just onsite, but also to the regional power grid). He emphasized what remains the case, no matter how good safety and security features at Shearon Harris get, no matter how much the company plans ahead: If the cooling system is ever compromised, and if it can't be restored, a Fukushima-type event would be possible at Harris, either in the reactor or in the spent-fuel storage system or both.

This is not to say that Warren and NC WARN want to see Shearon Harris shut down; they don't, at least not any time soon. Even NC WARN will grant we're stuck with it for now. "The top priority in North Carolina, as in most of the Southeast, has to be and is for us and others to phase out coal-fired power and phase in efficiency, solar, wind and co-generation," Warren says.

But while nukes may no longer be the biggest problem on NC WARN's radar, they're definitely not part of its solution. The fight, from his perspective, is therefore to keep both new nuclear and new coal and natural gas plants from being built, which he says can be done without loss to the state's total energy capacity through renewable energy and improved efficiency.

Warren says the idea that we are stuck between a rock and a hard place—that we are forced to choose between either coal or nuclear, between certain climate disaster and potential radiological catastrophe—is a false choice that has been propagated by an industry that will make money whichever of the two poisons we choose. Not for nothing do Shearon Harris employees refer to the plant's generator as "the moneymaker."

In fact, Warren says, North Carolina doesn't need two new reactors on the Shearon Harris site (as requested by Progress Energy) or new coal-fired generation (as planned by the company with which Progress will soon merge, Duke Energy). The late Dr. John Blackburn's policy analysis (available on NC WARN's website) backs this claim up, as do the recent decisions of European countries like Germany and Switzerland to end all investment in future nuclear in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

In short, NC WARN wants to keep currently operational nuclear plants like Shearon Harris "as safe as possible" during their operational life without building any more. "We're going to have to ride [nuclear plants] through the nuclear age," he told me, "so we can get up enough clean energy to shut them down."

But—like ALARA—"as safe as possible" is another funny phrase. As Jim Warren would be the first to remind you, it's almost, but not quite, the same thing as "safe."

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