@BGOV regularly features background on the development of Bloomberg Government Insights from the analysts behind them. In the wake of Japan’s earthquake and the resulting nuclear crisis, Energy Analyst Team Leader Rich Heidorn shares details about his recent examination of potential risks for the communities nearby nuclear reactors and the tradeoffs present in the adoption of energy alternatives.
As a young newspaper reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, I was assigned in 1983 to cover the licensing of Philadelphia Electric Co.’s Limerick nuclear plant. For the next 18 months, I attended hearings, read analyses and interviewed experts to learn all I could about reactor design, probabilistic risk analysis, “plume exposure pathways” and the other arcane issues the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would consider before allowing Limerick’s operators to turn the plant on.
Memories of the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, five years prior and just 70 miles away, were still chillingly fresh. If an accident occurred at Limerick, I quickly learned, the potential impact could be much worse. While TMI was a relatively small plant located in mostly-rural central Pennsylvania, Limerick’s two reactors — much larger — were only 21 miles from Philadelphia.
About 187,000 people lived within 10 miles of the plant and nearly 7 million within 50 miles. Evacuation plans envisioned unprecedented coordination among local, county, state and federal authorities. The 10-mile zone included 43 municipalities and 13 school districts in three counties. Special measures would be required to evacuate residents of three hospitals, nine nursing homes, a school for the mentally handicapped and a state prison housing 1,800 inmates.
I spoke with many local officials who doubted they would have access to the buses, ambulances and communications equipment needed to implement the emergency plans. They also were skeptical of the plans’ reliance on volunteers, who were expected to go to the homes of the handicapped and hearing impaired to notify them of an accident and to help them and others lacking transportation to evacuate.
All along, Philadelphia Electric and the NRC assured us that the chance of an accident was infinitesimal.
I’ve thought a lot about Limerick in the days since the massive earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant. The industry had learned its lesson from TMI, we were assured. But after the unthinkable happened in Japan, a meltdown is no longer unthinkable in the U.S.
If it happened at Limerick, the evacuation would be even more difficult now. Since the plant opened, population in the 10-mile zone has increased by almost a third, while the population within 50 miles has increased by more than a million.
That’s what prompted us at BGOV to return to Limerick for the Insight “Japan Crisis Focuses Attention on Nuclear Neighbors,” (subscription required) in which we considered how the U.S. would cope with a meltdown here.
We also talked to academic experts and industry watchdogs to detail two of the biggest threats to U.S. nuclear plants — the spent fuel stored onsite and the risk of a fire that could disable safety systems — for the Insight “Nuclear Industry May Need $8 Billion for Safety Fixes” (subscription required).
In a future Insight, we will look at whether the nuclear industry can overcome the latest setback to ensure a role in a less carbon-intensive energy future.
There are tradeoffs in all of our nation’s energy alternatives. At BGOV, we will do our best to help policymakers and business leaders make decisions with good data and without hysteria.
More than a decade after the Limerick licensing, BGOV Energy Analyst Rich Heidorn Jr. covered Pennsylvania’s move to electric competition, a shift prompted largely by cost overruns at nuclear plants such as Limerick.
After leaving The Inquirer in 1999, he managed an Internet start-up that provided news and market data to power and natural gas traders. Before joining BGOV, he also worked for eight years as an energy analyst for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.