WATERFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — David Smith’s job at Waterford’s Millstone Power Station is to plan for disasters that he hopes never happen.
“Our job is to make sure the station is prepared to respond to any event,” Smith said. He is the manager of emergency preparedness at the nuclear power plant, where he has overseen the implementation of new measures responsive to natural disasters as well as terrorist threats.
Connecticut’s Millstone Power Station’s two nuclear reactors went into operation in 1975 and 1986, respectively. Today, those reactors supply electricity for nearly half the state. Despite the reliance on nuclear power here in Connecticut, the industry faces challenges nationally. Last week, two nuclear power plants in Illinois run by Exelon Corp announced that they’d be closing due to financial loss. In addition, nuclear plants are dealing with aging infrastructure at plants, many of which are over 30 years old. At Millstone, Smith’s job is to continually focus on safety despite these challenges.
“It was so different when I walked in here 20 years ago,” Smith said. “The world’s changed and the plant has evolved with it.”
Smith had to make sure the plant evolved, especially after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011. When that plant in Japan was hit by a tsunami following a major earthquake, the back-up generators were destroyed, resulting in a loss of power. That caused the reactors to melt. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that U.S. nuclear plants take measures to protect generators and other emergency equipment from any potential disaster; Smith helped oversee Millstone’s response to that call by building a 10,000 square foot dome.
“This facility is the direct result of the Fukushima event,” Smith said, standing in the center of the dome. “This building is fully hurricane proof, F-5 tornado proof. It would sustain an earthquake. It can take a missile generated through a through a hurricane or a tornado and have that missile deflected off.”
Inside the dome, Millstone stores emergency equipment ranging from generators, water pumps, fuel trucks, tools, communication systems, and even portable toilets.
“This equipment needs to be protected and secure under whatever conditions,” Smith said.
Just over 20 miles away in Norwich, next to Dodd Stadium, sits another reminder of Fukushima’s impact on Millstone. Smith showed the News 8 Investigators around the Emergency Response Center, where plant leaders and engineers, government officials, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and other parties would come together in case of an emergency. It was completed in late 2014.
“We want to make sure that we can provide the best information in the shortest time we can,” Smith said. The facility has 80 phone lines, 12 fixed satellite phones, and six portable satellite phones, as well as three radio systems.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) would respond to the Norwich center in case of emergency.
“We assess radiological condition should there be an event at the power plant,” said Jeff Semancik, the director of the radiation division at the department. “We would make recommendations to the governor and local officials on what they would do to protect the public.”
In addition to many other state and local agencies, DEEP participates in annual drills where an emergency is simulated at Millstone. But some industry experts think all these preparations for a Fukushima-like event could be improved.
“Many lessons have been learned from that disaster,” said David Lochbaum, the Nuclear Safety Project director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Previously, he was a nuclear engineer for 17 years. “There are some things that could be added on top of that to make it even less likely that Millstone or one of our other plants becomes an American Fukushima.”
One of those things includes ensuring that the public knows what to do if the nuclear emergency sirens go off in their communities. 4.2 million people live within 50 miles of Millstone, and 125,000 residents live within the 10-mile emergency planning zone. Other improvements would be holding the emergency drills for longer time periods, and making sure that back-up responders are just as well-versed in what to do as the primary responders.
Because emergency plans are the last line of defense, Lochbaum thinks that “we need to make sure that safety net is intact and reliable as possible.”
Lochbaum said that compared to other nuclear plants, Millstone’s response to Fukushima has been “robust.”
In the midst of the challenges that the industry faces, he says the most important thing is to make sure that safety continues to be the priority.
“There’s change underway in the industry, and we are monitoring to make sure that change doesn’t reduce safety margins at Millstone or anywhere else.”