Memphis center to help in case of nuclear disaster

Associated Press |

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee center that has portable power generators, pressurized water pumps and other heavy-duty equipment that could be delivered to nuclear plants hit by a natural disaster or other extreme event, such as the tsunami in Japan, officially opened during a ceremony Friday.

Officials with nuclear power companies, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Tennessee Valley Authority attended the ribbon-cutting at the Memphis Regional Response Center.

The facility, along with an identical center that has opened in Phoenix, is part of an effort by the nuclear industry to possess the ability to fly in the equipment to try to avert a meltdown. The warehouse is minutes from Memphis International Airport, where FedEx planes could be quickly loaded with the equipment for deployment.

The response centers are part of a plan being developed to meet new rules that emerged after the 2011 tsunami struck the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan, flooding its emergency equipment and causing nuclear meltdowns that sent radiation into the environment. The effort, called FLEX, is the nuclear industry's method for meeting new U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules that will force 65 U.S. plants to get extra emergency equipment on site and store it protectively.

The equipment in the Memphis and Phoenix facilities is viewed as a kind of rescue cavalry for the plants' backup systems and their on-site emergency equipment. Together, the centers represent a $400 million investment from companies operating 100 reactors nationwide, officials said.

Memphis and Phoenix were chosen for their central locations and proximity to the nation's nuclear plants, officials said. The TVA operates three nuclear plants within a day's drive of the Memphis hub.

Michael Pacilio, president of nuclear reactor operator Exelon Nuclear, said members of the U.S. nuclear power industry met with officials in Japan and toured the Fukushima facility to learn what equipment would best fit their needs. Three years of design and planning went into the two facilities, Pacilio said.

Along with high and low-pressure cooling water pumps and power generators, the equipment also includes fuel pumps, emergency lighting towers, water treatment equipment, and electrical distribution cabinets. There's also a tank that holds boron, which is pumped into a reactor to absorb neutrons and safely shut down a reactor that is at a critical stage.

The facility holds five sets of equipment, with each set taking up about seven semi-trailers, Pacilio said.

Some of the equipment is contained in color-coded, box-shaped encasings with wheels. The equipment is standardized to fit any of the nation's power plants, and it can be delivered by truck, plane or even helicopter, officials said.

"Our reactors are not clones of one another in the United States," Pacilio said. "We knew that we had to design equipment that could work at all the reactors, not just one."

Officials also are working with law enforcement to plan logistics, such as police escorts to airports and nuclear plants.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials came to the Memphis center to take a look at the equipment. The industry still needs to present information to the NRC and perform "proof of concept" demonstrations to test the equipment to make sure it works properly and can be deployed according to the NRC's rules.

"We're still reviewing how these regional operations centers will work," said Jeremy Bowen, branch chief for NRC's orders project management department.

David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the nuclear industry and the NRC faced pressure after the Fukushima disaster to come up with a new emergency plan.

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Lochbaum said the concept of having regional response centers is a good one. But there are concerns about how workers at the nuclear plant sites will be trained to use the equipment, Lochbaum said.

Despite efforts at standardization, Lochbaum said there have been cases where workers have had trouble operating on-site emergency equipment.

"There are some skill sets involved with successfully deploying the equipment," Lochbaum said. "Since it's not at the plant sites, it's a little bit harder for workers to kick the tires and slam the doors and see what it is that they might have to use someday under stress."

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