Congressman Joe Barton last week toured the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant to see firsthand its safety measures and stressed his support for nuclear power after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crippled a nuclear plant there.
“Nuclear power is safe,” Barton, chairman emeritus of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, told a news conference in the plant’s visitor center before he toured the facility.
“Its safety record (in the United States) is 100 percent,” Barton continued. “We had the Three Mile Island incident in the 1970s where no one was injured and no radiation escaped.”
He added that nuclear plant safety systems in the United States are “more robust” than those in Japan.
“I’ve always said that if there is ever an earthquake in Texas, I want to be in the control room at Comanche Peak,” Barton said.
Asked the likelihood of having two new reactors built at Comanche Peak in the wake of the Japanese accident, Barton reiterated that he believed “our new reactor designs are very safe.” He cited polls that show 60 to 70 percent of Americans approve of nuclear power.
“I don’t think the accident in Japan will affect that too much if Congress can show the plants are safe,” Barton said.
Luminant, the power-generating company that operates Comanche Peak, has applied for a combined construction and operating license to build two additional reactors at the site. The application is making its way through the lengthy regulatory process.
Newer reactor technology offers security measures that respond to ground movement and other threats, Barton noted.
“Our new systems are passive,” he added. “They are automatic. They don’t require outside power. The reactor shuts down automatically.”
What to do with spent fuel rods at nuclear plants remains an issue for the federal government, Barton said. Nuclear power plants such as Comanche Peak shouldn’t have to store used fuel rods on site and should be able to send the used rods to the planned repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, he added. But federal funding has not been included for the project in recent budgets.
“We have spent billions of dollars (on Yucca Mountain) and we need to get a permanent location so rods can be stored” safely for a long time, Barton said.
Comanche Peak next month plans to stage one of its periodic “outages” another during which used fuel rods are removed. It's no small feat — the fuel assemblies are 12 feet tall. Comanche Peak has 193 of them.
During the outage the fuel assemblies are removed and a third of them receive new fuel. The outage takes place at one reactor at a time.
Rafael Flores, Luminant senior vice president and chief nuclear officer at Comanche Peak, again pointed out differences between the plants in Japan and Comanche Peak. The reactors in Japan used boiling-water reactors, while Comanche Peak uses a pressurized-water design. Spent fuel pools are located in a separate building and diesel fuel to power generators is located in underground tanks, he said. The Japanese fuel tanks, located above ground, washed away in the tsunami.
“We have procedures in place that we verify constantly,” Flores added. “The nuclear industry always strives to improve. We look for more margin (of safety) wherever we can.”
Unlike some other industries, the nuclear industry is close-knit and shares information, Flores noted.
“We stay in close contact with the other 103 plants in the U.S.,” he said. “There’s a very strong safety culture, but it’s something we’re not satisfied with. Nuclear power is only as good as it is tomorrow.”