Isolation, evacuations in U.S. central Plains as floods kill three

Flooded Camp Ashland, Army National Guard facility, is seen in this aerial photo taken in Ashland, Nebraska, U.S., March 17, 2019. Picture taken March 17, 2019. Courtesy Herschel Talley/Nebraska National Guard/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Flooding that killed three people in the central plains of Nebraska and Iowa has cut roads to a nuclear power plant and inundated a large portion of a U.S. Air Force base, forcing it to work with a skeleton staff on Monday, while more of region’s residents possibly faced evacuation.

The floods, which have prompted each state’s governor to declare a state of emergency, are the result of last week’s “bomb cyclone” winter storm, a winter hurricane that blew in from the western Rocky Mountains. Three people died in the flooding and at least one person was missing after hundreds of weekend rescues.

Flooded Camp Ashland, Army National Guard facility, is seen in this aerial photo taken in Ashland, Nebraska, U.S., March 17, 2019. Picture taken March 17, 2019. Courtesy Herschel Talley/Nebraska National Guard/Handout via REUTERS

Flooded Camp Ashland, Army National Guard facility, is seen in this aerial photo taken in Ashland, Nebraska, U.S., March 17, 2019. Picture taken March 17, 2019. Courtesy Herschel Talley/Nebraska National Guard/Handout via REUTERS

The floodwaters forced the operators of the Cooper nuclear plant, near Brownville, Nebraska, to fly in staff and supplies by helicopter, and covered one-third of that state’s Offutt Air Force Base, near Bellevue, home to the U.S. Strategic Command. The nuclear plant continued to operate safely and was at full power, its operator said.

The National Weather Service reported that some of the region’s larger rivers were running at record highs above flood level, causing levy breaks. Some small towns and communities have been cut off by floods while others have seen fresh drinking water become scarce. Floodwaters destroyed many homes and businesses over the weekend.

The NWS reported that temperatures across the hardest-hit areas will reach above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 C) through midweek and exceed 60 Fahrenheit by Friday. That would speed the pace of snow melt across the region and contribute water to already swollen rivers, the NWS said, possibly forcing evacuations in communities along the Missouri River on the Nebraska and Iowa border, as well as along the Elkhorn and Platte rivers in Nebraska.

“There could be issues across portions of Nebraska and Kansas for the next seven days,” NWS meteorologist Jim Hayes said.

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, who declared a statewide emergency last week, said on Monday that emergency officials have rescued about 300 people but that at least one person was missing.

At Offutt Air Force Base, 30 buildings had been flooded by up to 8 feet (2.4 m) of water and 30 more structures had been damaged, according to reports by the Omaha World-Herald, citing a base spokeswoman. Base officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The flooding covered 3,000 feet of the base’s 11,700-foot runway, the World-Herald reported.

The weather was blamed for three deaths, including one person who died at home after failing to evacuate, and a man swept away while trying to tow a trapped car with his tractor.

In Iowa, one man died after he was submerged in floodwaters on Friday in Riverton, according to the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds also issued an emergency proclamation at the outset of the flooding.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone)

Nebraska preps nuclear plant for possible flooding, no public danger

Corp of Engineers photo of the nuclear power plant during the 2011 Missouri River flooding

(Reuters) – Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) on Friday declared an “unusual event” at its Cooper nuclear power station in Nebraska due to the possibility of flooding along the Missouri River following a powerful winter storm this week.

The plant continues to operate safely and “there is no threat to plant employees or to the public,” the utility said in a release.

The late winter storm, dubbed a “bomb cyclone” by meteorologists, left blizzards, floods and tornados in its wake after hitting the U.S. Mountain and Plains states this week, before pushing east into the Midwest and the Great Lakes Region early Friday.

NPPD said its workers have filled sandbags along the river levee and procured other materials and supplies for flood protection.

The biggest danger to a nuclear plant from flooding is the loss of power, which can make it difficult to cool the uranium fuel in the reactor core and the fuel stored in the spent fuel pool.

That is what caused the fuel in some reactor cores at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan to partially melt down in 2011 after a giant earthquake and tsunami cut power to the plant.

Since Fukushima, all U.S. reactors have been upgraded with additional safety equipment, including portable pumps and generators to keep cooling water circulating through the reactor in case the plant loses offsite power.

NPPD said its procedures require it to declare an unusual event to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission when the Missouri River tops 899 feet above sea level. It reached 899.05 feet Friday morning, the company said.

Should the river rise to 900 feet above sea level, NPPD said plant workers will “barricade internal doorways as another layer of protection for facility equipment.”

If the river reaches 901.5 feet above sea level, NPPD said it would take the station offline as a protective measure.

The plant was built at 903 feet above sea level, which is 13 feet above natural grade, NPPD said.

The Cooper station is three miles (4.8 km) southeast of Brownville, Nebraska, near the Missouri River.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by David Gregorio and Richard Chang)

Erdogan, Putin mark start of work on Turkey’s first nuclear power plant

The leaders of Turkey and Russia marked the official start of work to build Turkey's first nuclear power station on Tuesday, launching construction of the $20 billion Akkuyu plant

By Tulay Karadeniz

ANKARA (Reuters) – The leaders of Turkey and Russia marked the official start of work to build Turkey’s first nuclear power station on Tuesday, launching construction of the $20 billion Akkuyu plant in the southern province of Mersin.

The plant will be built by Russian state nuclear energy agency Rosatom and will be made up of four units each with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts.

Construction site of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant is seen during the groundbreaking ceremony in Mersin, Turkey April 3, 2018. Depo Photos via REUTERS

Construction site of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant is seen during the groundbreaking ceremony in Mersin, Turkey April 3, 2018. Depo Photos via REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan marked the start to construction, watching by video link from Ankara.

“When all four units go online, the plant will meet 10 percent of Turkey’s energy needs,” Erdogan said, adding that despite delays Turkey still planned to start generating power at the first unit in 2023.

Speaking at a later news conference with Putin, Erdogan said the cost of the project may exceed the planned $20 billion for the 4,800 megawatt (MW) plant, part of Erdogan’s “2023 vision” marking 100 years since the founding of modern Turkey and intended to reduce Turkey’s dependence on energy imports.

Since Russia was awarded the contract in 2010, the project has been beset by delays.

Last month, sources familiar with the matter said Akkuyu was likely to miss its 2023 target start-up date, but Rosatom, which is looking for local partners to take a 49 percent stake in the project, said it is committed to the timetable.

The Interfax news agency cited the head of Rosatom saying the sale of the 49 percent stake was likely to be postponed from this year until 2019.

Turkish companies have been put off by the size of the financing required as well as by concerns they will not receive a sufficient share of the lucrative construction side of the deal, two industry sources have said.

Erdogan told the news conference Turkey may cooperate with Russia on defense projects besides the S-400 missile defense system which Moscow has agreed to supply to Ankara. He did not give further details.

Turkey signed an agreement to buy the S-400 system in late December in a move which raised concern in the West because it cannot be integrated into NATO’s military architecture.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will join Erdogan and Putin for a three-way summit on Syria in Ankara on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Denish Pinchuk in Ankara and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow; Writing by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Six years after Fukushima nuclear disaster, residents trickle back to deserted towns

Ukedo Elementary School Principal, Chieko Oyama, visits the school damaged by the March 11, 2011 tsunami, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Namie town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Teppei Kasai

NAMIE, Fukushima (Reuters) – A truck occasionally whizzes past the darkened shops with cracked walls and fallen signs that line the main street of Japan’s mostly deserted seaside town of Namie.

Workers repair a damaged home nearby, and about 60 employees busily prepare for the return of former residents in the largely untouched town hall. Not far away, two wild boars stick their snouts in someone’s yard, snuffling for food.

Signs of life are returning nearly six years after panicked residents fled radiation spewed by the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, when it was struck by an earthquake and tsunami.

Still, only several hundred of the original 21,500 residents plan to return in the first wave, estimates Hidezo Sato, a former seed merchant who helped draw up a blueprint to rebuild the town.

“As a person who used to sell seeds for a living, I believe now is a time to sow seeds” for rebuilding, said Sato, 71. “Harvesting is far away. But I hope I can manage to help bring about fruition.”

Since November, people who registered have been allowed to spend nights in the town, but residents will not need permission to stay round the clock after Japan lifts evacuation orders for parts of Namie and three other towns at the end of March.

Just 4 km (2.5 miles) away from the wrecked plant, Namie is the closest area cleared for the return of residents since the disaster of March 11, 2011.

But the town will never be the same, as radiation contamination has left a big area off limits. And it may never be inhabitable.

More than half – 53 percent – of former residents have decided not to return, a government poll showed last September. They cited concerns over radiation and the safety of the nuclear plant, which is being dismantled in an arduous, 40-year effort.

Fukushima “hot zone” returnees – http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/JAPAN-FUKUSHIMA/0100401R03R/JAPAN-FUKUSHIMA.jpg

OLD FOLKS

More than three-quarters of those aged 29 or less do not intend to return, which means old people could form the bulk of the town’s population in a future largely devoid of children.

“Young people will not go back,” said Yasuo Fujita, a former Namie resident who runs a restaurant in Tokyo, the capital. “There will neither be jobs nor education for children.”

Fujita said he did not want to live near a possible storage site for contaminated soil, now being systematically removed.

Radiation levels at Namie town hall stood at 0.07 microsieverts per hour on Feb. 28, little different from the rest of Japan.

But in the nearby town of Tomioka, a dosimeter read 1.48 microsieverts an hour, nearly 30 times higher than in downtown Tokyo, underscoring lingering radiation hotspots.

For the towns’ evacuation orders to be lifted, radiation must fall below 20 millisieverts per year. They must also have functioning utilities and telecoms systems, besides basic health, elderly care and postal services.

HUNTING BOAR

Namie, which used to have six grade schools and three middle schools, plans to eventually open a joint elementary-junior high school. So children will need to commute to schools elsewhere initially.

A hospital opens later this month, staffed with one full-time and several part-time doctors.

Reconstruction efforts may create some jobs. The town’s mayor, Tamotsu Baba, hopes to draw research and robotics firms.

Prospects for business are not exactly bright in the short term, but lumber company president Munehiro Asada said he restarted his factory in the town to help drive its recovery.

“Sales barely reach a tenth of what they used to be,” he said. “But running the factory is my priority. If no one returns, the town will just disappear.”

Shoichiro Sakamoto, 69, has an unusual job: hunting wild boars encroaching on residential areas in nearby Tomioka. His 13-man squad catches the animals in a trap before finishing them off with air rifles.

“Wild boars in this town are not scared of people these days,” he said. “They stare squarely at us as if saying, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ It’s like our town has fallen under wild boars’ control.”

Some former Namie residents say the evacuation orders should remain until radiation levels recede and the dismantling of the ruined nuclear plant has advanced.

But it is now or never for his town, Mayor Baba believes.

“Six long years have passed. If the evacuation is prolonged further, people’s hearts will snap,” he said. “The town could go completely out of existence.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Teppei Kasai and Toru Hanai: Editing by Malcolm Foster and Clarence Fernandez)

Highest levels of radiation reported by TEPCO from Fukushima power plant

A worker puts up new logo of TEPCO Holdings and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Group on the wall ahead of the transition to a holding company system through a compan

By Kami Klein

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced the highest documented radiation levels ever recorded in reactor 2 of the damaged Fukushima  No. 1 power plant.  Based on its analysis of measurements and pictures taken by a remote controlled sensor and camera instrument, radiation levels recorded were the highest ever documented since the triple core meltdown in March 2011. TEPCO also reported close to a 3 foot hole in the metal grating under the pressure vessel of reactor 2 of the damaged Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

According to the Japan Times the power plant has reached a maximum of 530 sieverts per hour.  At 530 sieverts, a person could die from even the briefest exposure.  This highlights the difficulties that lie ahead for TEPCO and the Japanese Government as they try to figure out a way to dismantle all three reactors that were damaged by the March, 2011 9.0 earthquake and giant tsunami that killed almost 16,000 people.

Officials had never taken into account for the “unimaginable” radiation levels that are being seen.  Experts say that 1 sievert could lead to infertility, loss of hair and cataracts.  Cancer risks increase substantially with any radiation levels above the 100 millisieverts or 1 sievert mark.

In a report by the Washington Post, TEPCO recorded radiation near the reactor core using a stick-like robot equipped with a camera and a device designed to measure radiation levels and has suggested that some melted fuel escaped.  Officials state that this was the first time this kind of device has been able to get into this part of the reactor, which explains the unprecedented amount of radiation recorded.  TEPCO said that at this level of radiation, a robot would only operate for less than two hours before it was destroyed.

If deposits that have been seen on portions of the grating are proven to be melted fuel, it would be the first time they have found even a trace of any sign of the fuel rods since the core meltdowns occurred. Levels of radiation are too high to check the actual condition of the fuel, which they believe has melted through their pressure vessels and is pooled at the bottom of their containment units.  This fuel MUST be discovered and removed before the plants can be decommissioned.

Reuters reports that TEPCO has been developing robots that can swim under water and navigate obstacles in damaged tunnels and piping to search for the melted fuel rods.  But as soon as the robots get close to the reactors, the radiation destroys their wiring and renders them useless.  TEPCO does plan to send this robot into Reactor 1 but are still unsure regarding Reactor 2 because of the very intense radiation levels.

Officials still state that these levels may not actually be rising but because they have not been tested so closely to the reactor, they are just now getting a better idea of the true levels recorded. TEPCO does report a 30% margin of error in the tests.

The effects of the radiation on the rest of the world have been in constant discussion and arguments among government officials and environmental scientists.  One year ago, PBS reported that more than 80 percent of the radioactivity from the damaged reactors ended up in the Pacific, far more than ever reached the ocean from Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.  A small fraction is currently on the seafloor, but the rest was swept up by the Kuroshio current, a western Pacific version of the Gulf Stream, and carried out to sea.  Recently, radioactive contamination has been documented near British Columbia and California.

 

Militant interest in attacking nuclear sites stirs concern in Europe

Doel Nuclear Plant

By Geert De Clercq and Christoph Steitz

PARIS/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Meter-thick concrete walls and 1950s-style analog control rooms help protect nuclear plants from bomb attacks and computer hackers, but Islamist militants are turning their attention to the atomic industry’s weak spots, security experts say.

Concerns about nuclear terrorism rose after Belgian media reported that suicide bombers who killed 32 people in Brussels on March 22 originally looked into attacking a nuclear installation before police raids that netted a number of suspected associates forced them to switch targets.

Security experts say that blowing up a nuclear reactor is beyond the skills of militant groups, but that the nuclear industry has some vulnerabilities that could be exploited.

“The insider threat is one of the most difficult to deal with, as this hinges on the ability to screen employees and figure out the nature of their intentions,” said Page Stoutland at the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), citing recent reported incidents in Belgium.

His assessment reflects growing anxiety among Western governments and regulators, including the U.N. nuclear watchdog (IAEA), about the risk of radicalised individuals gaining access to sensitive energy infrastructure, including nuclear sites.

In 2014, an investigation into a deliberate act of sabotage at Belgium’s Doel 4 nuclear reactor found that a former employee of the plant had died earlier in the year while fighting with Islamist militants in Syria.

In December, Belgian police found a video tracking the movements of a senior nuclear industry official during a search of a flat as part of investigations into the Islamic State attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people. Security around Belgian nuclear power stations was ramped up as a result.

Industry experts say that deliberately triggering a disastrous meltdown of a nuclear reactor would be difficult as nobody is ever alone in its control room, which typically has four to six operators there at all times.

This, according to Bertrand Barre, a former executive at Areva, the state-owned nuclear reactor manufacturer, would reduce the risk of a suicide mission like the Germanwings disaster last year in which a pilot locked himself in the cockpit and crashed his plane into a mountain.

Deliberate acts of sabotage cannot be ruled out, though. In 2014, the Doel 4 reactor was halted four months after someone purposely damaged its turbine by draining 65,000 liters of oil. The perpetrator was never found.

The risk of cyber attacks is also increasing. Most nuclear plants were built before the Internet or even the computer age, and their control rooms run on 20th-century analog technology. But the NTI says that nuclear plants are now digitalizing quickly, increasing the risk that hackers could commandeer them.

PLUTONIUM SHIPMENTS

The biggest risk arises from the nuclear fuel cycle, which involves the enrichment of uranium, fuel production and recycling, transport and storage of radioactive material.

Specialists say the pools in which spent nuclear fuel is left to cool are more vulnerable than the reactors themselves.

“A scenario which leads to water loss by damage to the pools could lead to a release of radioactivity of the same or higher order than a core meltdown,” said Yves Marignac, director of energy consultant WISE-Paris.

Installations like La Hague in France or Sellafield in Britain – where spent fuel from dozens of reactors is stored in pools before it is reprocessed or put in casks for dry storage – pose a particular worry.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, French authorities deployed ground-to-air missiles in La Hague, though these were removed a few months later after the threat level was deemed to have receded.

Every week, plutonium – one of the two key ingredients in nuclear bombs, along with highly enriched uranium – is transported overland from La Hague to Marcoule in southern France for recycling into mixed-oxide fuel.

“We cannot have a number of identified high-level terrorists on the loose and put emergency legislation in place while at the same time shipping plutonium over public roads on a regular basis,” World Nuclear Industry Status Report lead author Mycle Schneider told Reuters.

France has been under a state of emergency since the Islamic State bombing and shooting rampage in Paris, with increased powers of search and arrest for police.

Areva defends the plutonium shipments, saying they are coordinated with state authorities, have armed escorts and are housed in containers that are “real fortresses” secured by 100 kg (220 pounds) of steel for every kg of plutonium.

DIRTY BOMB

Experts also worry about militants pilfering radioactive material from medical or industrial installations.

Radioactive isotopes are used in dozens of applications, from cancer treatment to pipeline-welding inspections, and thousands of packages with small amounts of radioactive material are shipped across Europe every year.

Stolen radioactive material from these shipments could be combined with traditional explosives to create a “dirty bomb”.

While the radioactivity spread by such a device is unlikely to be lethal, it would create huge panic and pollute a vast area that would be very expensive to decontaminate.

In 1995, Chechen rebels placed a cylinder of radioactive caesium in a Moscow park, but did not detonate it and alerted Russian authorities, who deactivated the device.

Since the mid-1990s, member states of the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency have reported about 2,800 instances of radioactive material going missing.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said last month only a handful of these incidents involved material that could be used to make a nuclear explosive device, but some of the missing material could go towards devising a dirty bomb.

“The fact there has never been a major terrorist attack involving radioactive material does not mean it could not happen,” Amano said.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)