Japan nuclear crisis: 'Could it happen here?'

March 14, 2011 4:14:39 PM PDT
Chicago is surrounded by more nuclear power plants than anywhere in the United States, and Illinois has the greatest number of pressurized water reactors--the same make and model that are bedeviling Japan.

In this Intelligence Report: The question of "Could it happen here?"

Could any one of Illinois' nuclear plants fail? Of course. Accidents happen. Could there be an 8.0+ earthquake here? Possible. There was one along the New Madrid fault 200 years ago this December.

Would the nuclear reactors identical to those in Japan survive? That question is drawing different responses from watchdogs, the industry and politicians.

Exelon's Dresden Nuclear Generating Station, southwest of Joliet, and the Quad Cities plant in Moline are the two facilities in northern Illinois using General Electric Mark 1 reactors, the same boiling water model that was in use at the Fukushima plant in Japan where a hydrogen explosion rocked the horizon.

Over the weekend in Japan, that explosion occurred at the top of the reactor unit, known as "secondary containment." The primary containment area, closer to the core reactor, is reported still intact.

"Here in Chicago, the closest fault that we have that has significant quakes is the New Madrid and that has certainly had large earthquakes in the past, but most of our reactors here are much closer to Chicago than they are to St. Louis," said Prof. Jeff Terry, IIT professor of physics. "And so there's a significant distance, and with distance, it mitigates this effect."

In a statement, Exelon Chairman and CEO John Rowe said their nuclear plants "are safe, particularly given the different seismic patterns in our regions and the absence of tsunami-type events."

Rowe says "Exelon's nuclear facilities are designed to American seismic and flood standards, reflecting their local geography...and equipped with numerous and redundant safety systems."

However, when asked for Dresden's earthquake rating -- what magnitude it is capable of withstanding -- an Exelon spokesman declined.

"How many times do you get wacked in the face before you wake up?" said Dave Kraft, Nuclear Energy Information Service.

Kraft says the GE Mark 1 reactors in Illinois need to be re-evaluated for how they would tolerate a major earthquake.

"What's concerning us is the kind of flippant attitude that the federal regulators have put on seismic defense at our reactors in the Midwest," said Kraft.

Illinois' senators are not as quick to jump off the nuclear power bandwagon.

"I don't think we should have a knee-jerk reaction, because energy independence for us is critical," said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois.

"What we need to do is to expand all safe forms of electricity, power and electricity, including nuclear," said Sen. Dick Durbin, (D) Illinois.

In a letter Monday afternoon ,Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush, ranking member of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee, asked for hearings on nuclear plant risks, saying, that "we should not accept the industry's assurances without conducting our own independent evaluation."

There are 23 nuclear plants across the country currently using GE's Mark 1 system to contain radioactivity, a design that has been challenged by regulatory and safety experts as having a high chance of failure.