Ill. nuclear power plant similar to Japan plant

March 18, 2011 4:34:20 PM PDT
The nuclear crisis in Japan has raised questions about the safety at similar nuclear power plants in the United States.

One of those plants is located southwest of Chicago.

ABC7's political reporter Charles Thomas was invited on a private tour that the Exelon Corporation arranged for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago, who used his clout to get inside the nation's oldest, privately-owned nuclear power station.

As the ranking Democrat of the House of Representatives' subcommittee on energy and commerce, Rush toured the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant located near Morris, Ill., in Grundy County.

"I didn't want to come out to visit this place without having the eye on the media focused on it, and so they can share with the public what this facility is about," Rush said.

The station still operates two, over 40-year-old General Electric Mark 1 reactors, identical to those in crisis at the Fukushima plant in Japan.

Exelon executives who led Rush on the tour showed him vents and backup generators added since the reactors still in use were installed that were designed to prevent explosions and losses of cooling water that have imperiled the Fukushima plant.

"We have backup systems here now that, I believe if they had had them there, they would not have gotten the way they are," said Tim Hanley, Dresden Nuclear Plant.

Dresden's first reactor, the spherical building, was taken out of service in 1978. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has extended the use of reactor Units 2 and 3 , which were put in service in 1970 and 1971, respectively. The NRC extended Unit 2 until the year 2030 and Unit 3 until 2031.

Exelon officials convinced the congressman that because of continual equipment updates, Dresden's age has not affected its safe operation.

"Sometimes an old house is built much more substantially, and just age it is not a measure," said Exelon Nuclear COO Susan Landahl.

"They're on the money right now. And whether or not they're going to stay on the money, it's up to us to keep 'em moving forward," Rush said.

A major problem for Dresden, as at all American nuclear plants, is where to put its radioactive waste.

The U.S. has no place to dispose of spent fuel rods, hundreds of which at Dresden are stored in pools of water next to the reactor or encased in concrete on the plant grounds.

Additionally, the facility is more security-minded than ever. ABC7 was not allowed to video tape security-related improvements but Dresden is guarded against terrorists by a combat-ready, automatic weapons-wielding private army.

"My people are well-trained and they're very dedicated nuclear professionals who are going to make sure the plant stays safe," Landahl said.

Landahl says she does not rate security any higher than mechanical safety,but clearly it is the most noticeable difference for untrained observers between now and 10 years ago.

The Dresden Nuclear Power Station is one of the largest, if not the largest, employer in Grundy County. It provides 900 full-time jobs that are critical to the county's economy.