By PETER ROUSMANIERE, an expert on the workers' compensation industry
The world has been wracked by two highest-level major nuclear power plant accidents: Chernobyl in April 1986 and the latest, Fukushima, which resulted from Japan's massive earthquake of March 11 and its subsequent tsunami.
The public's eye is naturally on the threat of such an accident to civilians living or working near a plant, as well as those living remotely but exposed to far-carried, airborne, radioactive debris. The major health risks are radiation sickness and cancers. To combat these threats, emergency-response teams put themselves in harm's way, from the moment of the plant accident and through years of cleanup.
As of mid-April, about two dozen workers engaged at the Fukushima facility have been reported as injured, but no fatalities have occurred.
If a Fukushima-level event occurred in the United States, domestic response capacity and resources would be challenged.
Michael Greenberg, physician expert in occupational toxicology, told Risk & Insurance®, "The magnitude of this thing is enormous, probably beyond what anyone ever worried about. Most of the instances are small leaks and exposures to a few people."
The United States has experienced only one fatal plant accident, which took place in 1961 at a plant in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Three workers died as a result of exposure to fuel rods. The Three Mile Island partial meltdown of March 1979, did not appear to cause fatalities or even injuries to workers or the general population. The plant was located south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One of two reactors on site was not affected and is in operation today. The nuclear power industry, in response to Three Mile Island, created the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations to promote safety at commercial power plants.
The Three Mile Island accident was graded at level 5, the level at which the Fukushima accident was initially set. The International Atomic Energy Agency announced on April 12 that it placed the Fukushima accident at level 7, the highest level, based on the risk of radiation dispersal into the atmosphere.
SOME SAFETY CAPACITY
Buddy Eller, spokesperson for the South Texas Project nuclear power plant in Wadsworth, Texas, suggested that the industry would be able to respond.
After first signs of trouble at the Japan plant, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations triggered an intensive safety review of all 104 domestic commercial plans, to be completed within 30 days. The review includes an analysis of what would happen if the plant had a threat beyond design limits, including a complete power blackout such as occurred at Fukushima.
"There are conservative actions that are predetermined and established to ensure, that in the unlikely event we had an incident, we protect everyone's safety," Eller said.
The South Texas Project nuclear power plant's emergency plan was developed in conjunction with county, state, and federal authorities based on regulations and guidance from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies, he explained.
"We drill all the time," Eller said. "The Federal Emergency Management Administration grades the quality of our plans and drills. We did an earthquake drill. We just did a complete station blackout."
The Three Mile Island cleanup took 12 years, employed 1,000 highly trained workers and cost close to $1 billion. But the damage caused by the accident was relatively modest. The reactor wall remained intact.
At Chernobyl, the wall was destroyed when the reactor blew up while in operation. The Chernobyl accident resulted in the deaths of about 50 emergency responders due to radiation sickness. The environmental emissions were 10 times what they are today at Fukushima. Chernobyl's cleanup involved some 200,000 workers, not only at the Ukrainian plant site but also in other Soviet bloc countries affected by airborne exposures. Studies of the cleanup workers report a doubling or tripling of leukemia and thyroid cancers.
At Fukushima, the precipitating event was a loss of the cooling systems. As of mid-April, the containment structures at some of the Fukushima reactors are believed to be damaged and some of the buildings severely damaged.
Since the birth of the atomic era, about 1 million Americans have worked in the nuclear power industry. None of those working today savor being the frontline of response to a major accident.
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April 22, 2011
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