River Journal interviewed Mike Slobodien, Entergy’s Corporate Director of Emergency Programs. What follows is the second article in a two part series.
Slobodien was directly involved with the team that was assigned to go into Three Mile Island when it was in a state of emergency in l979. He has over 35 years of professional experience working in the nuclear industry, academia and government. Slobodien was asked to provide his thinking about a series of critical questions that have been in front of the public for the last several years.
Q. What will the future hold for the nation as far as nuclear energy is concerned versus an increasingly questionable reliance on oil? Can substitute sources of energy make up a correct supply if oil were to become an international problem?
A. In the U.S. we have abundant supplies of coal and nuclear power. But burning coal produces many waste products that are harmful to the environment and to health. Despite today’s cleaner coal and emissions technology, oxide emissions of sulfur and nitrogen are each associated with acid rain. Carbon dioxide emissions are involved with global warming.
In the history of humankind, the improvement in standards of living has been directly associated with using energy sources of ever-increasing energy density—the amount of energy produced per unit mass. Before the industrial revolution we relied on bio-mass sources, primarily wood. Once coal became available, it enabled the use of steam engines and the production of steel, i.e., the Industrial Revolution. As oil became available with an energy density even greater than coal, we were able to take advantage of the internal combustion engine. It now critically important that we find sources of electricity production that do not rely on fossil fuels so that we can maintain the necessary oil levels for transportation, chemical feed stocks, plastics, pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals.
Nuclear Energy has the advantages of a high density with near zero emissions. Many other nations around the world are using the abundance of nuclear fuel as they move toward the future. China plans another twelve reactors soon. France gets 80% of its electrical energy from nuclear power. Japan and Germany are also being supplied by nuclear power. With our current total of 103 nuclear plants across the country it is highly likely that we will soon move along the same path.
Q. Mr. Slobodien, what was your role at Three Mile Island and what exactly happened at Chernobyl?
A. In 1979, at the time of the accident, I was a radiation specialist for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. At the outset I assisted the initial response team that was sent to Harrisburg, PA. The accident was due to plant operators misreading a water/steam gauge and ending up with less water in the reactor than needed. The reactor overheated and the rods began to melt. Within days I was sent to the site to perform assessments of the radiation exposures of plant employees who had responded to the accident. Following this event, I was put in charge of developing and deploying the NRC’s radiation environmental monitoring system for all nuclear power plants in the U.S
In 1982, I joined the staff of the company that owned Three Mile Island and eventually was put in charge of the radiological aspects of the clean-up as a result of the long term effects of the accident.
Regarding Chernobyl, several things happened at the Ukraine reactor that can’t happen in U.S. reactors. In fact, the Chernobyl reactor could not have been licensed or built in the U.S.
To begin, plant operators were conducting a military experiment that violated plant procedures. During the experiment, operators overheated the reactor. As the reactor heated up, reactor power increased—something that cannot occur in U.S reactors; in fact, under these conditions U.S. reactor power slows down by design. Pressure increased in the Chernobyl incident to the point that the lid of the reactor blew off the vessel and easily ruptured the thin walls of the building that enclosed the reactor.
In addition, the Ukraine reactor was using graphite, not water, (as is used in the U.S.), to moderate the fission process and cool reactors. In this case, the graphite caught on fire which was nearly impossible to put out. Further, the public received no notification of the event until several days had gone by, and no wind advisories were issued.
Q. There is almost constant confusion about an evacuation plan. How does Indian Point work with the County and where are the actual lines of responsibility between the two? What is the County Executive referring to when he says the plan is "unworkable in a fast moving emergency?"
A. The emergency response plan at Indian Point is a comprehensive set of procedures and guidance documents that enable decision-makers to assess conditions, determine protective actions, inform local government officials and the public and to implement tactics to protect health and safety. Entergy is responsible for emergency planning on the Indian Point property and the counties are responsible for the area outside plant property.
County capabilities and authority include deployment of response personnel, directing sheltering or evacuation of the public, traffic control, establishment of centers for gathering people and families, environmental monitoring and food and water monitoring. County government can obtain support from the State and Federal authorities.
Concerns about a "fast moving emergency" are based on an assumption that a terrorist event could cause a uniquely fast and damaging event at a nuclear reactor. That assumption was made in the Witt report. The fact is that U.S. nuclear reactors cannot have a fast moving event that would result in a cataclysmic atomic explosion. Nuclear reactor physics and design for such an event simply does not exist. In fact, the accident at Three Mile Island was contained within its dome just as it was designed to do. No one inside or outside the plant was injured.