Emergency Generators for Minnesota’s Reactors May Be Unworkable

The Prairie Island two-reactor complex, 39 miles from Minneapolis/St.Paul, is owned by Xcel Energy. Both reactor systems and the open-air storage of high level waste fuel in casks (white cylinders at upper right in photo) are located in the floodplain of the Mississippi River.
The Prairie Island two-reactor complex, 39 miles from Minneapolis/St.Paul, is owned by Xcel Energy. Both reactor systems and the open-air storage of high level waste fuel in casks (white cylinders at upper right in photo) are located in the floodplain of the Mississippi River.

Keeping nuclear reactors from running out of control and melting requires the circulation of cooling water at all times. Even when a reactor is “shut down” this cooling has to go on — powered by backup diesel generators — so that the ferociously hot uranium fuel in the reactor, and waste fuel in storage, is kept from burning through its containers a releasing its colossal store of barely pent-up radiation.

The circulation of cooling water was halted at the smashed Fukushima reactor complex in Japan last year, causing three reactor meltdowns and one waste fuel pool fire — and the release of enormous amounts of radiation.

Here in Minnesota, according to a recent Minneapolis StarTribune report, three nuclear power reactors “will get post-Fukushima upgrades,” but the pittance being expended makes the project look like mere propaganda, or corporate image control, like smearing lipstick on a hog. Xcel Energy — which owns the two reactors at Prairie Island, 32 miles south of Mpls. and one at Montecello, 40 miles northwest of there — says it will install new diesel generators for emergency electric power.

Questions about the
official Fukushima story

Most accounts of the unfolding disaster at Fukushima assert that backup electricity was destroyed when the tsunami, “wiped out power lines and in-plant diesel backup generators,” as the StarTribune said.
It turns out that Fukushima’s backup diesels may have destroyed themselves just by being turned on.

In his November 2011 book Vulture’s Picnic (Dutton), Greg Palast casts alarming doubt on the “tsunami wrecked the generators” theory, and points up reactor vulnerabilities worldwide caused utility reliance on inadequate diesel motors.

In chapter 10, “Fukushima, Texas,” Palast explains that aerial photos now show that the buildings housing Fukushima’s diesels are intact. To find out if the diesels failed due to reasons other than the official story, Palast studied records he’d compiled 30 years ago, when diesel expert R.D. Jacobs suspected problems with diesels proposed for a U.S. reactor. After studying the tests he was hired to monitor, Jacobs warned a utility executive that nobody knew “what the axial vibration of the crankshaft was doing to the [diesel] units.” Jacobs wanted the diesel motors thoroughly inspected. The company refused.

Palast and other watchdogs also investigated plans for the Shoreham reactor on Long Island Sound in New York. That reactor was completed but never-operated. Critics had forced Shoreham’s builders to test the backup diesels under emergency conditions, and all three failed, one after another, when their crankshafts snapped — as Jacobs had predicted. The Shoreham reactor was cancelled, and the faulty generator case applies to Fukushima and hundreds of other reactors.

Most backup diesels not built to withstand emergency starts
According to Jonathan Sellers — another diesel generator expert that Palast interviewed about his work for General Electric at a California nuke — emergency backup diesels were designed for, or even taken from, cruise ship engine rooms or old locomotives. As such, they need 30 minutes to warm up and more time to “build crankshaft speed,” before adding the load of the generator. However, in a loss-of-power emergency these backup “diesels have to go from stationary to taking a full load in less than ten seconds,” Sellers said. The machines are not made for such a “crash start.”

“So, you’re saying emergency diesels can’t work in an emergency?” Palast asked. Sellers answered, “Actually, they’re just not designed for it.”
These diesels are the cheap off-the-shelf diesels that Xcel Energy told the StarTribune it intends to buy for its Minnesota reactors, rather than the more expensive nuclear-qualified equipment. Penny pinching by Xcel is what made Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council lambast the so-called “upgrade” telling the StarTribune, “This is a public relations measure to create the illusion that the industry is jointly taking the issue seriously.”    

Xcel could use some good PR especially after the disclosure of two recent tritium leaks from its Prairie Island reactors. Tritium is a known carcinogen, and it doesn’t take a large-scale disaster like Fukushima to cause it to leak from nuclear reactors. Tritium leakage to surface and ground water and to the air is routine, and present tritium limits fail to account for health risks such as early failed pregnancies, malformations and other non-cancer outcomes. No population anywhere should be subjected to these health and pregnancy risks. With 53 out of 54 Japanese reactors now shut down, and their electricity replaced with easily adopted conservation measures, there is no reason this country can’t shut ours down too — and plenty of reasons to do so.

In its February 2012 report “Lessons from Fukushima,” Greenpeace sums up the reckless endangerment bought to us every day by nuclear power this way: “After what we have seen of the failures in Fukushima, we can conclude that ‘nuclear safety’ does not exist in reality. There are only nuclear risks.”
— John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in Wisconsin and edits its quarterly newsletter.