Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2021
By John LaForge
A change to “emergency response” has been made at the old Point Beach nuclear reactors south of Green Bay. The operator, NextEra Energy Point Beach, has turned off 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.
The siren system has been replaced with what’s called “IPAWS” for Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. NextEra says on its website, “The emergency alert system will broadcast official information on local radio stations. Alerts will be sent to your cell phone. 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 sends disaster warnings only to radios and cell phones. Are yours always on all night? Without sirens to wake sleeping nearby populations in the event of an overnight reactor disaster, potential victims can pretend that accidents only happen in daytime.
A quick search reveals:
- the 1986 Chernobyl explosions and meltdown began at 1:23 a.m.
- the 1979 Churchrock, New Mexico, uranium mine waste spill — the largest accidental radioactive material release in US history — broke at 5:30 a.m.
- the Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, partial meltdown in 1979 started at 4:00 a.m.
Michael Keegan of Don’t Waste Michigan is a close watchdog of Point Beach and the 28 other reactors on the Great Lakes. He wrote in an email to Nukewatch, “If they can afford them, 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.”
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 “bath tub curve” depicting failure rates over time in systems 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 the old reactors 20-year license extensions, letting them rattle and hum until they’re 60. In November 2020, NextEra applied for a second extension that, if granted, would allow its two reactors to churn out radiation until they’re 80 years old. Adding even more risk to the reactors’ “golden years,” NRC in 2011 approved a 17 percent increase in power output from both units. These changes to original design and engineering limits are akin to dear old gramps gunning the engine of his vintage jalopy with the lousy breaks, racing down main street and running red lights with the whole family involuntarily along for the ride.
Tragic warning from Germany
Germany’s deadly flooding in July with at least 210 fatalities is a tragic example of how retiring warning sirens can be catastrophic.
In some towns sirens failed when the electricity grid crashed, and elsewhere there were no sirens at all, the Los Angeles Times reported July 24. (“Residents of flood-stricken German towns say they got inadequate warning of deluge”) The German daily Badische Neueste Nachrichten reported August 6 that sirens were removed in many places or weren’t working. There had been some 80,000 sirens across Germany when the Cold War ended, but in the 1990s the federal government handed responsibility over sirens to local communities and, in cost-cutting steps, thousands of them, many in the flooded areas, then halted their regular maintenance or removed sirens altogether. In 2015, Germany’s Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance said only 15,000 sirens still existed, Germany’s N-TV reported July 9.
Second only to the endless hazards of radioactive waste, disaster response preparedness has always been the bane of nuclear power systems — the only industrial machines required to have evacuation plans prior to start-up. Taking down warning siren systems only increases the likelihood of catastrophe. Running old reactors harder and without sirens amounts to reckless endangerment.