Officials from a South Carolina power utility gave media rare access Tuesday into a nuclear power facility under construction outside the town of Jenkinsville in Fairfield County. South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) wanted to calm fears about nuclear energy after several dangerous accidents at a Japanese facility last month.
Many in the public have been fixated on the crisis at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Japan after an earthquake and tsunami resulted in several explosions, radiation releases, and a partial meltdown.
The March 11 earthquake knocked out Fukushima’s power supply. The plant had emergency back-up generators which kicked in after the power outage. However, the resulting tsunami easily cleared the plant’s seawall and flooded the backup generators, causing them to fail. The power outage shut off the reactor’s cooling system, eventually leading to a partial meltdown and large hydrogen explosions.
Stephen Byrne is leading SCE&G’s first new nuclear plant construction in nearly 30 years. The new reactors will be located at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station, already home to an SCE&G reactor that has been operating since 1984.
Byrne said the South Carolina plants are not threatened by earthquakes.
We have no active or capable fault lines in the vicinity of this plant. That’s something we had to prove to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when we built (the original reactor), and when we applied for the licenses for (the two new reactors). Our site here, we’re 435 feet above sea level… we are over 100 miles from the ocean. A tsunami is not going to be an issue for us.
However, while Fairfield County doesn’t face tsunamis or earthquakes, the facility could still lose power if its grid and backup generators fail. Byrne said the plant is designed to automatically release water to act as a coolant if the facility loses power, with enough water reserves on-site to last for a week. Byrne said the Japanese plants did not have such a system.
If the Japanese (had been) able to cool their reactors for even a day, the event would not have been as significant. Three days is probably an, “Oh, never mind,” and, if they had seven days worth of water, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about it.
Another problem at Fukushima was the release of radioactive water vapor, which Japanese officials did to avoid an even worse meltdown. Byrne said South Carolina’s plant is a pressurized reactor— if they had to do something similar, it would not be as dangerous as Japan’s boiling water reactors.
The two sites will use the new Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design. However, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet approved the design. SCE&G officials have begun construction on the sites, attempting to finish as much as possible (infrastructure, cooling towers, assembling the reactors) before that point. They hope to receive permission by the end of the year to install the reactors.
For more information:
Nuclear Energy Institute (nuclear industry)
Friends of the Earth (group that opposes new reactors in South Carolina)
Check back in later this week to learn more about the construction of the new reactors.