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Nuclear plants in the US rethink disasters

ATLANTA — If disaster strikes a US nuclear power plant, the utility industry wants to be able to fly in heavy-duty equipment that could avert a meltdown.

That capability is part of a larger plan being developed to meet new rules that emerged after a 2011 tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in ­Japan, flooding its emergency equipment and causing nuclear meltdowns that leaked radiation into the environment. The tsunami exceeded the worst-case scenario the plant was designed to withstand, and it showed how an extreme, widespread disaster can complicate emergency plans.

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The effort, called FLEX, is the US nuclear industry’s method for meeting new Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules that will force 65 plants to get extra emergency equipment on site and store it protectively.

As a backup, the industry is developing regional hubs in Memphis and Phoenix that could truck or even fly in more equipment. Industry leaders say the effort will add another layer of defense in case a Fukushima-style disaster destroys a plant’s multiple backup ­systems.

‘‘It became very clear in Japan that utilities became quickly overwhelmed,’’ said Joe Pollock, vice president at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group that is leading the effort. Industry watchdogs are concerned that by moving first, the utility industry is attempting to head off more costly and far-reaching requirements that might otherwise be set by the NRC. Plants started buying the new equipment even before NRC regulators approved the concept. Industry officials say they are not certain yet how the equipment would be moved in a crisis.

That “essentially gave the industry the upper hand in how this is going to play out,’’ said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who criticized FLEX as a ‘‘window-dressing exercise.’’

US nuclear plants already have backup safety systems and are supposed to withstand the worst possible disasters in their regions, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes. But planners can be wrong.

The Japanese utility TEPCO dismissed scientific evidence and geological history showing that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was susceptible to being struck by a far bigger tsunami than it said was possible. Dominion Virginia Power’s North Anna Power Station was struck by a 2011 tremor that caused peak ground movement at about twice the level for which the plant was designed. It did not suffer major damage and has resumed operations.

The FLEX program is supposed to help nuclear plants handle the biggest disasters. The equipment is meant to assist in the most critical tasks during a crisis: keeping nuclear fuel cool, keeping radioactive barriers intact, and making sure old stores of used nuclear fuel don’t overheat.

If a cooling system fails and nuclear fuel gets too hot, the heat and pressure can rupture a reactor or even cause explosions that send radiation into the environment.

Utility companies must tell regulators next year what equipment they are buying. It could include portable pumps, generators, batteries and chargers, compressors, ols, and temporary flood barriers.

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