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UI Researcher Downplays Concerns Over U.S. Reactors

As Japanese officials scramble to stabilize nuclear reactors following last week's earthquake and tsunami, the focus has also shifted on the safety of nuclear power plants in the United States.

James Stubbins, head of nuclear engineering at the U of I, said of Illinois' 11 reactors, six are boiling water reactors similar to ones affected by the devastation in Japan. One is about 40 miles away from Urbana in Clinton. Stubbins said there is no reason to be concerned about the stability of these reactors because it is unlikely they will be faced with a tsunami, like the one in Japan.

"When we understand better what happened in Japan," Stubbins said. "We'll assess what really led to the problems and upgrade systems where necessary or upgrade methodologies where necessary to ensure that similar kinds of things can't happen here."

Stubbins said because the Clinton reactor is younger than those affected by the tsunami, it has a more up to date safety system in place.

In a recent New York Times editorial, David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists writes that the primary challenge for the Japanese reactors was losing their normal and back-up power supplies.

"The reactors were designed to cope with this situation for only eight hours, assuming that normal or back-up power would be restored within that time," Lochbaum said. "But the accident failed to follow that script, leading to serious problems cooling the reactor cores."

Lochbaum said "the one-two punch" from an earthquake and tsunami disabled numerous emergency systems.

According to Lochbaum, most reactors in the U.S. are designed to cope with power outages lasting only four hours. He said following the situation in Japan, measures should be taken to increase the chances of restoring power within the "assumed time period or providing better cooling options when that time runs out."

He noted that the incident in Japan is a reminder of the need to revisit emergency plans to make sure people are protected when a disaster hits.

Categories: Education, Energy, Science