From AP - News Headlines -

Durbin, Kirk Question Nuclear Experts

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says the size of the evacuation zones around the six nuclear power plants in Illinois should be reviewed.

Kirk and fellow U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin held a forum Friday with a panel of four nuclear experts that resembled a congressional hearing to talk about safety in Illinois in the wake of the disaster in Japan.

Four of Illinois' 11 reactors are almost identical to those involved in Japan's nuclear crisis. Exelon Corp. owns the plants and says they're safe.

Officials sought to assure the senators that Illinois plants are safe and have multiple layers of safeguards.

Kirk and Durbin also were interested in making sure the state's stockpile of potassium iodide pills for people in evacuation zones is consistent with new 2010 census numbers.

Meanwhile, officials in Iowa were questioning just how safe are nuke power plants in and near Iowa?

Nuclear power plants in and around Iowa generally are operating safely, but there have been violations in the past as more safety questions arise because of the nuclear crisis in Japan and as Iowa lawmakers consider legislation making it easier to build another plant in Iowa, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission records.

Illinois has a nuclear plant in Cordova, located on the Mississippi River across from Davenport. Iowa has one nuclear power plant, the Duane Arnold Energy Center near Cedar Rapids. Nebraska has two plants on the Missouri River - The Fort Calhoun Station north of Omaha and Cooper Station near Brownville.

The Des Moines Register on Friday reported the plants have had no fines in the past five years, but have been cited by federal regulators.

The newspaper, which reviewed Nuclear Regulatory Commission records, reported that Nebraska's Fort Calhoun Station is one of three plants in the United States facing the highest level of regulatory scrutiny. That's because the plant's safety systems were found last year to be in danger of flooding, according to records.

Inspectors found the plant didn't have enough sand to fill bags that operators planned to place on a flood wall to protect buildings and equipment.

"We're going through all our procedures in fairly quick order not only for NRC, but also because of events in Japan," said Fort Calhoun spokesman Jeff Hanson.

There's an adequate stockpile of sand in place now, but the plant will continue to be inspected frequently because the violation was consider a "substantial" safety risk.

The other plants in or near Iowa were cited for less serious problems, records show.

In the past five years, the Iowa plant received notification of four violations that occurred between 2003 and 2009, said Renee Nelson, spokeswoman for NextEra Energy Resources, which owns 70 percent of the plant.

No fines were issued. The violations involved a diesel generator problem, a deficiency in drills and planning, failure to complete a checklist before moving fuel bundles and failing to properly notify health personnel.

"Protecting the health and safety of the public through safe power operations is always our top priority. We take any and all feedback from the NRC very seriously," said Renee Nelson, spokeswoman for NextEra Energy's plant in Iowa.

Nelson said two of the findings occurred and were resolved to the satisfaction of the NRC more than two years ago. Both represented "low safety significance," she said.

The other findings were related to events in 2003 and 2004, and were specifically related to proper procedure use, not plant safety, Nelson said.

The NRC determined that the plant "operated in a manner that preserved public health and safety and met all cornerstone objectives," according to the agency's latest assessment released March 4.

Last week, NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said U.S. nuclear plants "are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena. ... We believe we have a very sold and strong regulatory structure in place right now."

But the Union of Concerned Scientist, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit that focuses on environmental and safety issues, said U.S. plants have "the same key vulnerability" that led to the crisis in Japan.

"The basic problem is that the Japanese reactors lost both their normal and back-up power supplies, which are used to cool fuel rods and the reactor core," the organization said in a statement.

Victor Dricks, a NRC spokesman in Dallas, whose regional includes the Nebraska plants, told the Register that redundant safety systems, backup power supplies and several methods for shutting down reactors at U.S. plants make disasters such as the one in Japan extremely unlikely.

Most plants get their electricity from two or three high-power lines. If those should fail, there are two sets of backup diesel generators that come on automatically and are housed in buildings designed to withstand tornadoes, fires, earthquakes, floods and tsunamis, Dricks said.