COLUMBUS - The U.S. nuclear power industry has learned from and adapted following the Three Mile Island incident and 9/11 terrorist attacks.
This is why Alan Dostal, corporate nuclear business manager at Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), believes nuclear plants around the country are better prepared for catastrophes such as that felt at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi facility in March.
That plant, which was devastated by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, operates in a similar manner to NPPD's Cooper Nuclear Station, Dostal explained to Columbus Noon Rotary earlier this week.
Both plants generate electricity by boiling water using nuclear fuel, specifically uranium, and using the steam created to power turbines.
The problem at Daiichi, Dostal said, was that surging waters destroyed cooling pumps and drug back-up diesel generators out to sea. With no way to cool the radioactive fuel, it overheated, creating a build-up of hydrogen and eventual explosion.
Iodine-131 released by the plant was detected as far away as Cooper Nuclear Station, Dostal said.
"What's happened to Japan is incredibly traumatic," he said, but not something that's likely at NPPD's nuclear plant.
Cooper Nuclear Station has operated safely since going online in 1974, Dostal told the group. It's licensed through 2034, with discussion currently under way at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that would allow nuclear plants to stay active for 70 total years - extending Cooper's life another 10 years.
The plant features two diesel generators capable of powering the facility should it lose off-site power using a 20-day supply of on-site diesel. Up to eight hours of emergency power can be stored in battery banks at the facility.
Cooper is also equipped with an alternate venting system that expels hydrogen into the surrounding atmosphere, preventing a potential Daiichi-like explosion.
"That's an important safety feature that we have," Dostal said.
The $6-8 billion nuclear plant, which supplies 20 percent of NPPD's total electricity generation, also has a back-up cooling system and water pump.
Structurally, Dostal said, Cooper Station is designed to withstand a 5.9-magnitude earthquake, 300-mph winds containing a projectile such as a telephone pole and a million-year flood.
"We're designed to take on a lot of challenges from nature," he said.
Should an emergency arise, Dostal said there is an established 10-mile evacuation zone, including the community of Brownville, and 50-mile zone where radiation monitoring would occur.
Drills are regularly conducted with area residents and officials from Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he added. "Our intent is to always to ready."
Pre-9/11, Dostal called Cooper's security better than that currently found at major airports, and $40 million in upgrades have occurred since then.
"Nuclear power is a serious business," Dostal said, "and we treat it exactly that way."
After the Fukushima incident, NRC-mandated testing and precautions have been instituted and commission reports on the U.S. nuclear industry's status and disaster preparedness are expected in the coming weeks. Around September, the NRC will issue any changes needed in response to Fukushima.
"Their initial analysis is that there's nothing that they can see today that would require a change because they feel we're well ahead of this thing," said Dostal.