By John LaForge
A change has been made to the “emergency response” protocol at the old Point Beach nuclear reactors on Lake Michigan, south of Green Bay. The operator, NextEra Energy Point Beach, has replaced the site’s disaster warning sirens.
No more will the familiar wail warn of potentially catastrophic radiation releases or spills from the two reactors — which are 51 and 49 years old, respectively, well past their originally licensed maximum of 40 years.
The siren system has been replaced with an “Integrated Public Alert and Warning System” (IPAWS). NextEra says on its website that emergency alerts will be broadcast on public radio and through cell phone alerts, but not sirens. They assure us: “If you have functional needs or do not own a cell phone, contact your emergency management agency to be registered for notification and assistance.”
That is, the system will send disaster warnings only to radios and cell phones. Are yours always on all night? The lack of sirens to wake sleeping nearby populations assumes that nuclear accidents only happen in daytime.
In fact, the Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, partial meltdown in 1979 started at 4 a.m.; the 1979 Churchrock, New Mexico, uranium mine waste spill broke at 5:30 a.m.; and the 1986 Chernobyl explosions and meltdown began at 1:23 a.m.
“I sure hope everyone has their TV, radio, computer or cell phone on in the middle of the night when the [IPAWS] alarm is sounded,” Michael Keegan of Don’t Waste Michigan, a watchdog of Point Beach and the 28 other operating reactors on the Great Lakes, wrote in an email.
Paul Gunter, at Beyond Nuclear in Takoma Park Maryland, specializes in reactor hazards and operations. He wrote in an email, “Removing the audible stationary sirens from within the emergency planning zone will significantly diminish the reactors’ early warning notification system and the radiological defense-in-depth strategy.”
Gunter points to the “bathtub curve” (pictured) depicting failure rates in every technology from toasters to nuclear reactors. “At startup, high rates of failures result from design flaws, mis-assembly and defects. A period of stable operations ensues, but over time, the aging of systems, structures and components leads to material degradation and a steeper rate of failures,” Gunter wrote.
In 2005, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted NextEra’s request to give Point Beach reactors 20-year license extensions, letting it produce radioactive waste for 60 years. Adding more risk to the reactors’ “golden years,” NRC in 2011 approved a 17 percent increase in power output from both units. The approval seems like dear old gramps gunning the engine of his jalopy, racing down main street and running red lights with the whole family involuntarily along for the ride.
Germany’s recent deadly flooding event, which killed at least 210 people, provides a tragic example of how retiring the sirens can be catastrophic. As the Los Angeles Times reported on July 24, 2021,“Residents of flood-stricken German towns say they got inadequate warning of deluge”; sirens in some towns failed when the electricity grid crashed; elsewhere there were no sirens at all. The Associated Press reported July 25 that Germans said warning systems failed and “At least 132 people were killed in the Ahr Valley alone.”
After nuclear waste, emergency and disaster response have always been the bane of nuclear reactors — our only industrial machines required to have evacuation plans before start-up. Taking down warning siren systems only increases the likelihood of catastrophe. It amounts to reckless endangerment. ###