Illinois Public Media News
The risk that an earthquake would cause a severe accident at a U.S. nuclear plant is greater than previously thought, 24 times as high in one case, according to an AP analysis of preliminary government data. The nation's nuclear regulator believes a quarter of America's reactors may need modifications to make them safer.
The threat came into sharp focus last week, when shaking from the largest earthquake to hit Virginia in 117 years appeared to exceed what the North Anna nuclear power plant northwest of Richmond was built to sustain.
The two North Anna reactors are among 27 in the eastern and central U.S. that a preliminary Nuclear Regulatory Commission review has said may need upgrades. That's because those plants are more likely to get hit with an earthquake larger than the one their design was based on. Just how many nuclear power plants are more vulnerable won't be determined until all operators recalculate their own seismic risk based on new assessments by geologists, something the agency plans to request later this year. The NRC on Thursday issued a draft of that request for public comment.
The review, launched well before the East Coast quake and the Japan nuclear disaster in March, marks the first complete update to seismic risk in years for the nation's 104 existing reactors, despite research showing greater hazards.
The NRC and the industry say reactors are safe as they are, for now. The average risk to U.S. reactors of core damage from a quake remains low, at one accident every 500 years, according to the AP analysis of NRC data.
The overall risk at a typical reactor among the 27 remains very slight. If the NRC's numbers prove correct, that would mean no more than one core accident from an earthquake in about 30,000 years at the typical reactor among the 27 with increased risk.
But emails obtained in a more than 11,000-page records request by The Associated Press show that NRC experts were worried privately this year that plants needed stronger safeguards to account for the higher risk assessments.
The nuclear industry says last week's quake proved reactors are robust. When the rumbling knocked out off-site power to the North Anna plant in Mineral, Va., the reactors shut down and cooled successfully, and the plant's four locomotive-sized diesel generators turned on. The quake also shifted about two dozen spent fuel containers, but Dominion Virginia Power said Thursday that all were intact.
Still, based on the AP analysis of NRC data, the plant is 38 percent more likely to suffer core damage from a rare, massive earthquake than it appeared in an analysis 20 years ago.
That increased risk is based on an even bigger earthquake than the one last week. Richard Zuercher, a spokesman for Dominion, the plant operator, says the earlier estimate "remains sound because additional safety margin was built into the design when the station was built."
The safety cushion would shrink, though, if the plant's risk is found to be greater.
Federal scientists update seismic assessments every five to six years to revise building codes for some structures. But no similar system is in place for all but two of the nation's 104 reactors - even though improving earthquake science has revealed greater risks than previously realized.
The exception is Diablo Canyon in earthquake-prone California, which has been required to review the risk of an earthquake routinely since 1985. The NRC does not require plants to re-examine their seismic risks to renew operating licenses for 20 years.
After the March earthquake in Japan that caused the biggest nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, NRC staffers fretted in emails that the agency's understanding of earthquake risk for existing reactors was out of date.
In a March 15 email, for example, an NRC earthquake expert questioned releasing data to the public showing how strong an earthquake each plant was designed to withstand. The seismologist, Annie Kammerer, acknowledged that recent science showed stronger quakes could happen. "Frankly, it is not a good story for us," she wrote to agency colleagues.
Kammerer's boss, Brian Sheron, who heads the NRC's Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, wrote in a March 14 email that updated numbers showed the government "didn't know everything about the seismicity" in the central and the eastern part of the country.
"And isn't there a prediction that the West Coast is likely to get hit with some huge earthquake in the next 30 years or so? Yet we relicense their plants," he wrote.
The NRC flagged the 27 plants for possible upgrades by calculating the likelihood of a severe accident based on 2008 hazard maps from the U.S. Geological Survey and comparing it to the seismic risk estimated in 1989 or 1994. Those data were used the last time existing reactors evaluated their earthquake hazards.
The NRC identified the 27 reactors with the greatest risk increase but did not provide the risk numbers. The AP used the NRC's data and methodology to calculate the risk increase for each reactor.
The Perry 1 reactor in Ohio tops the list with the steepest rise in the chance of core damage: 24 times as high as thought in 1989. The four other plants with the largest increases include River Bend 1 in Louisiana, up nine times; Dresden 2-3 in Illinois, eight times; Farley 1-2 in Alabama, seven times, and Wolf Creek 1 in Kansas, also seven times. The smallest increase was the 38 percent at North Anna.
A spokesperson for Exelon Nuclear, which operates the Dresden facility, said Friday that the new risk analysis is faulty because it doesn't include plant upgrades since seismic information was provided to the NRC in the mid-1990s.
Spokeswoman Krista Lopykinski says Dresden in Grundy County has "layer upon layer of safety systems" to protect against natural disasters.
Todd Schneider, a spokesman for First Energy Corp., which operates the Perry plant, said the increase in its seismic risk estimated by the NRC is misleading. He said Perry is capable of withstanding an even larger earthquake than is typical for the region.
Personnel at a handful of other plants, including Indian Point outside New York City and Oconee in South Carolina, have already redone the NRC's calculations, and they show a much lower risk of core damage from earthquakes. Those calculations have not yet been reviewed by the agency, which along with other federal agencies is developing a baseline earthquake risk for every nuclear power plant to use.
Predicting earthquake probability and damage is dicey; the Japanese nuclear industry was taken by surprise in March when a quake-driven tsunami far surpassed predictions and swamped the Fukushima Dai-ichi site.
The U.S. nuclear industry may not be fully ready, either. Current regulations don't require the NRC to make sure nuclear reactors are still capable of dealing with a new understanding of the threats.
It's not just earthquakes. It is all types of events, including floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, said an NRC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the agency's recent seismic work.
The worry about earthquakes is not so much direct damage to the reactor vessel, the hardened enclosure where the nuclear reaction takes place, but to water tanks and mechanical and electrical equipment needed when disaster strikes. The failure of those systems could disable cooling needed to prevent meltdowns of radioactive fuel.
In some of the emails obtained by the AP, NRC staffers worried that U.S. reactors had not thoroughly evaluated the effects of aftershocks and the combined impact of a tsunami and earthquake. They suggested plants might need more durable piping as well as better flood barriers and waterproof storage of essential equipment. Staffers talked of a need for bigger supplies of fuel and batteries for extended losses of all electrical power. One email expressed concern about some key pumps at Dresden that might fail in an earthquake.
In a separate problem reported last month, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy acknowledged that its older control rods could get stuck if an earthquake struck when reactors were running at low power. Control rods are needed to stop the nuclear reaction. The manufacturer has alerted the operators of 35 U.S. reactors at 24 sites, who are checking whether replacements are needed. The AP documented scores of instances of such wear and tear in a range of equipment in a June investigative series showing that safety standards have been relaxed to keep aging reactors within the rules.
When the NRC ran preliminary calculations of quake risk last year, it was the first time the agency had reassessed the threat since most plants were built.
"The plants were more vulnerable than they realized, but they weren't unsafe. We look at rare, rare events," said Kammerer, the NRC seismologist.
Plants built a generation ago were designed to withstand an earthquake larger than any known to have occurred in the area. But since then, scientists have been able to better estimate the earthquakes that are possible. And in some cases, those rare quakes could be larger and more frequent than those the plants were designed for.
"If they met a certain level, they didn't look any further," Gregory Hardy, an industry consultant at Simpson, Gumpertz and Hegger in Newport Beach, Calif., said of some of the industry's earlier assessments. "Forty years ago, when some of these plants were started, the hazard - we had no idea. No one did."
Seismologists inside the agency didn't recognize that increasing earthquake risk was an issue until operators started applying to build new reactors at existing plant sites in the central and eastern United States in 2003. Those applications included a thorough analysis of the risk posed by earthquakes, which is required for all new nuclear power plants.
In some cases, the result was much higher than risk calculations performed by the industry in the early 1990s as part of a broader assessment of worst-case disasters.
"We did have some idea that the hazard was going up" in the period between the late 1990s analysis and the applications for new reactors, said Clifford Munson, a senior technical adviser in the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactors. But Munson said some of the research indicated that there was disagreement on whether the ground motion predicted would damage nuclear power plants.
Kamal Manoly, another NRC senior technical adviser, said, "There was nothing alarming (enough) for us to take quick action."
But a task force requested by President Barack Obama to make U.S. safety recommendations after the Japanese accident has questioned that. Its three-month review concluded that existing reactors should re-examine their earthquake risk more often.
Some operators are expressing caution about the NRC's initial analysis, and say their own early calculations show that their facilities are at much lower risk. The differences between the calculations of government and industry have prompted some to call for a third-party review.
"It sort of defies logic to ask the regulated entity to do the seismic analysis to determine whether upgrades are necessary or relicensing is appropriate," said California Sen. Sam Blakeslee, a geophysicist who pushed a bill through the Legislature giving the California Energy Commission a role in assessing seismic risk, particularly at Diablo Canyon. "There needs to be a more arm's length relationship in getting this technical information."
There will always be uncertainties, experts say.
"If all these plants were subjected to large earthquakes, that's the only way anybody can say for sure. But the only ones we know of are in Japan," said Hardy, referring to the quake that struck in March and another in 2007 that damaged the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant.
"There is a pretty good technical feeling that U.S. plants are going to be safe," Hardy said, "but there is just a question of how much work it will take to show it.
The oppressive heat that's blanketed parts of the region has prompted city officials in Decatur to ask residents to conserve their water use.
People living in the area have been advised to fix leaky faucets, wash only full loads of dishes and laundry and take shorter showers.
Lake Decatur is roughly 1.5 feet below its normal level and falling at a rate of half an inch a day. Residents make up less than a quarter of the lake's water consumption.
Water management director Keith Alexander said the city has started using water from a pit near the Lake Decatur dam, and he says it's possible it may have to also dip into the De Witt County well field. He said if that happens, customers would notice an increase in their utility bill.
"If we notice that these drought expenses are starting to inch up - if the drought continued - then we'd have to pass those costs onto our customers," Alexander said.
But Alexander said he is confident that a steady flow of rain will return, preventing any sort of dramatic change to the city's water supply.
"But we always have to plan for the worst case scenario when we enter these dry spells," he said. "So, at this point in time, we're asking for voluntary conversation. The next dramatic steps would be the potential for mandatory conservation."
The last time Decatur residents were required to conserve water was during a 2007 drought. For this year's heat-wave, Alexander cautions boaters using Lake Decatur to be careful of shallow areas, especially around docks and hoists.
A proposed wind farm for Champaign and Vermilion Counties goes before the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals tonight.
The ZBA's 7 PM meeting at the Brookens Center in Urbana is the first of four scheduled meetings on the proposal from Chicago-based Invenergy Wind. County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said he hopes the zoning board can reach a conclusion on the proposal by its Sept. 29 meeting --- so the county board can act in October. But he said if there's enough public interest, more meetings may be scheduled.
"This could go beyond Sept. 29, if necessary," Hall said. "We absolutely have to listen to what people want to say, provided it's no redundant, and it's relevant to the application. And if that literally takes longer than Sept. 29, that's what we'll have to do."
The Champaign County Board could vote on the application as early as Oct. 20.
Invenergy's proposed California Ridge wind farm would place 30 wind turbines in northeast Champaign County, north of Royal, and 104 turbines in western Vermilion County.
The Vermilion County Board approved a building permit for the project in July.
A Champaign city council member says a proposed stormwater utility fee goes beyond the problems of a couple of neighborhoods, and impacts the city's marketability to prospective residents and businesses.
Marci Dodds and other council members unanimously backed the plan for a tiered fee system in Tuesday night's study session. She has heard years of complaints from residents who have seen their streets, basements, and backyards flooded by excessive rain.
Dodds said the problem came to head about ten years ago.
"The council and the city then took a step back and looked at the stormwater problem as a whole," she said. "They said 'Ok, where are the low points - let's start with those, and then work our way upstream. I mean really, how are you ever going to invest in this town if you're taking a canoe down Green Street?"
The tiered system means the majority of homeowners would pay less than $4 a month. Anyone with more than 6,000 square feet of impervious area on their property, like roofs or driveways, would pay close to $8 a month. And those with 8,000 or more square feet of such an area would pay about $10 monthly. But Dodds said residents can avoid paying the fee by investing in a rain barrel or rain garden, and earning credits in return from the city.
Champaign Public Works Director Dennis Schmidt said he recognizes there hasn't been a lot of public input on the idea yet. A committee formed by his department will be doing some outreach over the next several months.
Schmidt said the panel will meet with park districts, school districts, homeowners' groups and apartment owners to explain why the fee is needed, and how it will affect individuals. He said the city has identified about $80-million in needed stormwater improvements.
"Whether you're talking about 4th and Green (Streets), flooding viaducts, flooding in the John Street or Washington Street areas, I think the flooding is well documented in this community," Schmidt said. "I think there's other issues of areas where there's just no stormwater handling capabilities at all in the area."
Schmidt said discussions on the fee won't resume until February, so it if the plan passes, it will likely be 2013 before residents paying start it.
The summer evening at the Indiana State Fair turned strangely cold. The wind blew hard, then harder still, tearing the fabric from the roof of the wobbling grandstand stage.
The crowd, waiting under a thunderous sky for the country duo Sugarland to perform Saturday, had just been told over the loudspeakers that severe weather was possible. They were told where to seek shelter if an evacuation was necessary, but none was ordered. The show, it seemed, was to go on.
None of the phone calls workers had made to the National Weather Service prepared them for the 60 to 70 mph gust that blew a punishing cloud of dirt, dust and rain down the fairground's main thoroughfare. The massive rigging and lighting system covering the stage tilted forward, then plummeted onto the front of the crowd in a sickening thump.
Five people were killed, four of them at the scene, where dozens ran forward to help the injured while others ran for shelter out of fear that the devastation had only begun. Dozens of people - including several children - remained hospitalized Sunday, some with life-threatening injuries.
"Women were crying. Children were crying. Men were crying," fairgoer Mike Zent said.
The fair canceled all activities Sunday as officials began the long process of determining what happened and fielded difficult questions about whether the tragedy could have been prevented.
"We're all very much in mourning," Cindy Hoye, the fair's executive director, said during a news conference Sunday. "It's a very sad day at the state fair."
Gov. Mitch Daniels called the accident an "unthinkable tragedy" and said the wind burst was a "fluke" that no one could have foreseen. Dan McCarthy, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Indiana, said the burst of wind was far stronger than gusts in other areas of the fairgrounds.
The seemingly capricious nature of the gust was evident Sunday at the fair, where crews placed a blue drape around the grandstand to block the view of the wreckage. A striped tent nearby appeared unscathed, as did an aluminum trailer about 50 yards away. The Ferris wheel on the midway also escaped damage.
First Sgt. Dave Bursten of the Indiana State Police said the lack of damage to structures on the fair's midway or elsewhere supported the weather service's belief that an isolated, significant wind gust caused the rigging to topple.
"All of us know without exception in Indiana the weather can change from one report to another report, and that was the case here," he said.
The stage toppled at 8:49 p.m. A timeline released by Indiana State Police shows that fair staff contacted the weather service four times between 5:30 and 8 p.m. At 8 p.m., the weather service said a storm with hail and 40 mph winds was expected to hit the fairgrounds at 9:15 p.m.
Bursten said fair officials had begun preparing in case they needed to evacuate visitors for the impending storm. At 8:30, additional state troopers moved to the grandstand to help in the event of an evacuation, according to the timeline.
Meteorologist John Hendrickson said it's not unusual for strong winds to precede a thunderstorm, and that Saturday's gust might have been channeled through the stage area by buildings on either side of the dirt track where the stage fell, at the bottom of the grandstand.
Fair officials said the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration and state fire marshal's office were investigating. Bursten said the investigation could take months.
The owner of Mid-America Sound Corp., which installed the rigging, expressed sympathy for the families of those killed or injured. Kerry Darrenkamp also said the Greenfield, Ind.-based company had begun "an independent internal investigation to understand, to the best of our ability, what happened."
Zent, of Los Angeles, said the storm instantly transformed what had been a hot, sunny day.
"Just everything turned black. ... It was really cold, it was like winter, because I had been sweating all day. Wind blew over the ATM machine," Zent said.
He and his girlfriend, Jess Bates, were behind the grandstand when the heard a noise - the stage collapse. They began running as the wind buffeted them.
Bates said a woman who had been in the second row of the concert with her teenage daughter grabbed her and sobbed as she recounted pulling her daughter to safety while others rushed forward to try to help those pinned beneath the scaffolding.
"She was gripping me very tight, and I could just feel her shaking," Bates said. "She said, 'My daughter is all I have in this world and I almost lost her tonight,'" Bates said.
Â Dr. Dean Silas, a gastroenterologist from Deerfield, Ill., said it took about five minutes to work his way from the grandstands to the track after the collapse. He saw three bodies covered with plastic when he arrived.
He said it took about 25 minutes for volunteers and emergency workers to remove victims from beneath the rigging and load them onto makeshift stretchers.
"There had to be 75 to 100 people there helping out," he said.
Bursten identified those killed as Alina Bigjohny, 23, of Fort Wayne; Christina Santiago, 29, of Chicago; Tammy Vandam, 42, of Wanatah; and two Indianapolis residents: 49-year-old Glenn Goodrich and 51-year-old Nathan Byrd. Byrd, a stagehand who was atop the rigging when it fell, died overnight.
Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles sent a statement to The Associated Press through her manager, saying she watched video of the collapse on the news "in horror."
"I am so moved," she said. "Moved by the grief of those families who lost loved ones. Moved by the pain of those who were injured and the fear of their families. Moved by the great heroism as I watched so many brave Indianapolis fans actually run toward the stage to try and help lift and rescue those injured. Moved by the quickness and organization of the emergency workers who set up the triage and tended to the injured."
Nettles and Kristian Bush, who perform as Sugarland, canceled their Sunday show at the Iowa State Fair.
Concert-goers and other witnesses said an announcer warned them of impending bad weather but gave conflicting accounts of whether emergency sirens at the fair sounded. Some fair workers said they never heard any warnings.
"It's pathetic. It makes me mad," said groundskeeper Roger Smith. "Those lives could have been saved yesterday."
Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the damage was so sudden and isolated that he wasn't sure sirens would have done any good.
Indiana is prone to volatile changes in weather. In April 2006, tornado-force winds hit Indianapolis just after thousands of people left a free outdoor concert by John Mellencamp held as part of the NCAA men's Final Four basketball tournament. And in May 2004, a tornado touched down south of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, delaying the start of the Indianapolis 500 and forcing a nearly two-hour interruption in the race.
Daniels stood by the fair and its officials as they prepared to reopen Monday with a public memorial service to honor the victims.
"This is the finest event of its kind in America, this is the finest one we've ever had, and this desperately sad ... fluke event doesn't change that," he said.
Sunday's accident was the worst at the Indiana fairgrounds since a 1963 explosion at the fairgrounds coliseum killed 74 people attending an ice skating show.
(AP Photo/Jessica Silas)
The city of Chicago could be near the end of a five-year legal battle for control of a former industrial parcel with potential to help form a 24-acre park. If an eminent-domain settlement holds up, the space could be an asset for a Mexican-American area of the Southwest Side.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sanjay T. Tailor this week signed off on the deal, under which the city will pay $7.5 million for 19 acres owned by 2600 Sacramento Corp.
The money will go to the Cook County Treasurer's Office and remain there as the company's owner, Joanne Urso, tries to settle with her lender, Texas-based United Central Bank, which last year filed a federal suit to foreclose on the property.
"I don't get a penny," Urso said Friday afternoon.
Urso's property would combine with a 5-acre plot the city already controls.
Activists in the Little Village neighborhood hailed the settlement.
"We have not seen any park development in over 75 years," said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
Wasserman's group has been pushing for the land to become a park for five years. She said the deal could inspire residents of other neighborhoods.
"Regardless of language and regardless of immigration status, as long as there is determination in these communities, we can continue to get the things that we need," she said.
The park concept has the backing of the local 12th Ward alderman, George Cárdenas.
The land was once the site of an asphalt and tar manufacturing facility. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the plant operated from about 1918 to 1982. The agency eventually declared the land a Superfund site. The contamination included cancer-linked chemicals that turned up in nearby homes and yards. An EPA statement says Honeywell International Inc. finished a site cleanup last year.
The city filed its eminent-domain suit in 2006. Reaching an agreement became more complicated last year, when the foreclosure proceedings began.
The payment, due September 7, will consist of $6 million from the Chicago Park District and more than $1.5 million from city general-obligation bonds, according to Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The time-frame for turning the land into a park is not clear. Ownership will transfer to Chicago upon payment, but the city is not specifying a date for transferring the acreage to the Park District. Hoyle said that could possibly happen later this year.
The U.S. Department of Justice says Caterpillar Inc. has agreed to pay $2.55 million to settle allegations that it violated the U.S. Clean Air Act.
The department said Thursday that it believed the Peoria-based heavy equipment-maker had shipped more than 590,000 engines that lacked proper emissions controls. The engines were for vehicles made for highway travel and for other purposes.
Engines lacking such controls can emit excess nitrogen oxides and other pollutants that can harm human health.
As part of a consent decree signed with the department, Caterpillar also must continue recalling the engines to make repairs.
Caterpillar spokeswoman Bridget Young says the company denies any wrongdoing and will comply with the decree.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is back from a week-long trip to Israel.
Quinn raved about the trip Monday. He says he hopes he can bring businesses from Israel to Illinois. He also wants to export some of the state's technology there in the areas of biotechnology and water conservation.
He says there is "great opportunity'' for renewed and even greater partnerships with Israel. Illinois has trade representatives there.
While he was there, Quinn signed a sister lakes agreement between Lake Michigan and Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. He says there is great potential in that partnership, which could mean jobs and research.
Quinn's trip was paid for by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.
Gov. Mitch Daniels has asked President Barack Obama to add Vermillion and Wayne counties to 32 counties approved for a federal disaster declaration last month.
If Monday's request is approved, state and local governments and certain non-profit organizations in the two additional counties would be eligible to apply for federal aid to pay 75 percent of the approved cost of debris removal, emergency services and repairing damaged public facilities such as roads and buildings.
The disaster declaration Obama issued last month covers damage from flooding, tornados and straight-line winds between April 19 and June 6.
Wayne County is along the Ohio state line and Vermillion is along the Illinois state line.
The electric utility serving most of central and southern Illinois says it churned out a record amount of power this week.
Ameren says consumers used more than 9600 megawatts of electricity at one point Thursday, breaking a record that was just set on Tuesday. The old record was set four summers ago, in August 0f 2007.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said as long as there are heat advisories in place for the area, no one's power will be deliberately shut off, even those who are haven't paid their bills. But they will not be safe once the weather cools, and Morris said they have had plenty of warning.
"They have received many many notices advising them that they are falling behind in their bill," Morris said. "Eventually they will receive what is called a disconnection notice. However again they are encouraged to contact us to set up a payment plan because we don't want to disconnect them."
Morris said Ameren has not had any heat-related outages, and it has been able to handle the high demand without calls to cut back on power use.
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