Almost all American nuclear power plants have backup batteries that would last only half as long as those at Japan’s troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant did after a tsunami knocked out power there; just eleven of the U.S. 104 plants had eight-hour batteries, and 93 had four-hour batteries; the batteries are not powerful enough to run pumps that direct cooling water, but they can operate valves and can power instruments that give readings of water levels, flow and temperatures
Almost all American nuclear power plants have backup batteries that would last only half as long as those at Japan’s troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant did after a tsunami knocked out power there, an expert testified Tuesday at a Senate committee briefing on nuclear safety.
An industry official, addressing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, conceded that battery life was “one of the obvious places” that nuclear operators would examine for potential improvements. The New York Times reports that David Lochbaum, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which generally takes a critical tone toward nuclear reactors, said that just eleven of the nation’s 104 plants had eight-hour batteries, and 93 had four-hour batteries. The batteries are not powerful enough to run pumps that direct cooling water, but they can operate valves and can power instruments that give readings of water levels, flow and temperatures.
After the 11 March tsunami disabled the local electricity grid at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the plant’s emergency diesel generators, the failure of the batteries deprived the plant’s operators of those crucial measurements.
Addressing the committee with Lochbaum was Anthony R. Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry trade association. “To get to 48 hours, or 72 hours, pick a number,” he said of the backup batteries. “We’re going to have to take a hard look and see what resources would be required.”
The Times notes that after the committee briefing, Pietrangelo said that one alternative to adding long-lasting batteries could be having portable diesel generators available for quick dispatch to a reactor. Some equipment intended to cope with a severe accident or terrorist attack is already centrally stockpiled, he said.
Separately, Representative Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts), said Tuesday that he would introduce legislation to require that American plants acquire 72-hour batteries along with fourteen days of fuel for the backup diesel generators.
Fukushima reportedly had seven days of diesel fuel, but the tanks were washed away by the tsunami; most American plants bury their tanks for safety, according to industry officials.
The bill would also impose a moratorium on license renewals and on new plant licenses.
Another expert who spoke before the Senate committee, William Borchardt, the chief staff official of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), said that the Fukushima crisis would have no impact on the commission’s granting of new licenses or license extensions.
If Japan’s experience shows that changes in reactors are needed here, he said, those will be ordered immediately, regardless of the status of the plant’s license, license extension or license application.
Another American practice that appears likely to be re-evaluated in view of Japan’s crisis is filling pools with spent fuel to the maximum extent possible. Markey and others called for reducing the risk by moving some fuel to dry casks, something that is done now only when the pool is at capacity.