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Trouble in Fissionville February 21, 2006

Posted by dr. gonzo in Nuclear Power.

A couple notes on nuclear power, which once had the potential to be the world’s next great source of energy – before Chernobyl and Three Mile Island anyway.

And then there are incidents such as this:

“Operators at the LaSalle Generating Station declared a ‘site area emergency’ at 12:28 a.m. Monday during shutdown of the Unit 1 reactor for a scheduled refueling outage and exited the emergency condition at 4:27 a.m. Monday.

The emergency was declared after plant personnel were unable to confirm the position of 3 of the 185 control rods following a shutdown of the reactor.”

Good news? No injuries, no radiation release.

Bad news? Public perception of the safety of nuclear power will continue to wane.


The incident is under investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its report will be available in 30 days.

NRC release on special investigation.
Exelon release on incident.
NRC page on Lasalle Unit 1.


Here are the definitions of the NRC’s emergency classifications regarding nuclear sites (in descending order of severity):

4). Notification of Unusual Event – Under this category, events are in process or have occurred which indicate potential degradation in the level of safety of the plant. No release of radioactive material requiring offsite response or monitoring is expected unless further degradation occurs.

3). Alert – If an alert is declared, events are in process or have occurred that involve an actual or potential substantial degradation in the level of safety of the plant. Any releases of radioactive material from the plant are expected to be limited to a small fraction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protective action guides (PAGs). Additional information regarding PAGs can be found on the EPA Web site at: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/rert/pags.htm

2). Site Area Emergency – A site area emergency involves events in process or which have occurred that result in actual or likely major failures of plant functions needed for protection of the public. Any releases of radioactive material are not expected to exceed the EPA PAGs except near the site boundary.

1.) General Emergency – A general emergency involves actual or imminent substantial core damage or melting of reactor fuel with the potential for loss of containment integrity. Radioactive releases during a general emergency can reasonably be expected to exceed the EPA PAGs for more than the immediate site area.

The Lasalle incident was declared a “site area emergency.”


Related is the news from a couple days ago that the NRC updated the Safety Evaluation Report for Exelon’s application for an Early Site Permit at the Clinton nuclear site, near Clinton, Illinois. This is part of the preliminary process involved in any new reactor construction.

The process allows the applicant to address any site-related issues, such as environmental impacts. This is just the beginning stage of this lengthy process which the NRC predicts could end by 2007. After that Exelon would have up to 20 years to decide to build two or more power plants on the Clinton site.

NRC news release on Clinton ESP.

Photo 1: Lasalle Generating Station, Unit 1, near Seneca, Illinois. (Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

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1. yinn - February 22, 2006

What bothers me about nuclear power is that private companies get the profits for generating the power but it’s on the government/taxpayers to cover the insurance on a plant. It’s a hidden cost & doesn’t seem fair that we have to hedge their bets–also it makes a person wonder how safe these plants are, if private insurers won’t touch them.

2. A Mc - February 22, 2006

yinn: nuclear power, at least in my opinion has always been a viable alternative. While the safety has always been a concern, overall I don’t think the safety concerns are all that high, but more the perception of safety concerns. Look for something from me soon about that. The insurance companies just play into that perception and thusly we foot the bill, not fair really, but you can thank Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

3. yinn - February 24, 2006

Two ideas today on NPR’s Science Friday that made me think: 1) we actually may have enough experience with nuclear power by now to know what works and what doesn’t; and 2) if we limit power plants to a very few designs, when something goes wrong at one you know exactly what to check at all the others (as with jet plane engines).

My prejudices come from being part of the generation that fought such schemes as Bailley, the nuclear power plant they wanted to build on the shifting sand dunes of northern Indiana.

4. A Mc - February 25, 2006

I think you hit it on the head with the limited design idea. I think you will find American nuclear power did do a decent job of limiting itself to a few reactor designs but as for the rest of the world, well that’s another story. Just look into the design of the Chernobyl reactors, not only will it make your head spin but if you look into nuclear power it will make your brain bleed. The only reservations I have about a well funded, well scientifically supported nuclear power program is the spent fuel problem. This is something that the now in jeopardy Yucca Mountain national storage site would have addressed. As it stands there are 67 nuclear power sites (and more than double that number of actual reactors) that are in charge of storing their own spent fuel. Until this problem is addressed I don’t think nuclear power will ever be seen as a viable option.

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