To the farmland residents who witnessed it, the scene looked innocent enough. There were no clanging alarms to warn of danger, just long, billowy puffs of steam that rose in fivesecond bursts, adding an almost dreamlike quality to the frozen landscape around Ontario, N.Y. But the noxious nature of what was spewed from the Ginna nuclear power plant last week was all too apparent to its technicians. Within minutes the leak had escalated—in “nukespeak”—from “an unusual event” to an “alert” to a “site emergency.” Then the reactor was ordered to a cold shutdown.
While plant officials tried to downplay the effects of the radiation two things were worryingly clear: it was the worst nuclear incident since Three Mile Island; and, perhaps more importantly, the problem that caused the Ginna emergency—corrosion of nickel-alloy tubing in the steam generator—exists at most of the 38 pressurized water reactors operating in the United States. Nuclear critics and officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are united in conceding that it is only a
matter of time before many more of the pipes—there are 3,260 in each generator-rupture. Said Ronald Haynes of the NRC: “It was a severe failure, and I would expect more to occur. There are problems with these materials.”
New difficulties were quick to arise. Vermont’s Yankee nuclear power plant was shut down after officials noticed that a “wisp of steam” that had been leaking from the system had grown worse. At the Oyster Creek power plant near Atlantic City, N.J., corrosion and freezing temperatures caused a leak in a line used to monitor water levels.
Between 1975 and 1981 there were similar failures in at least three other nuclear plants in Minnesota, Virginia and Florida. On Oct. 2, 1979, Minnesota’s Prairie Island nuclear reactor spurted 2,000 L of radioactive coolant per minute because of a small leak. Officials at Indian Point’s controversial number 2 and number 3 reactors in Buchanan, N.Y., have recently found tubing to be corroding far faster than was originally expected.
Despite engineers’ claims that the steam generator tubing would last for 40 years, most plants experiencing problems have been in operation only for a decade. Ginna work crews have already repaired more than 20 tubes since the plant started producing electricity in 1969. The cost of further repairs across the country seems set to
soar into tens of millions of dollars, a figure that could slim significantly the privately owned utilities’ profit margins. Nickel-alloy tubing is also used in the 10 nuclear power plants in Ontario, Canada. And the serenity of Canadians grown used to the better-constructed Candu system has been somewhat shaken by the Ginna incident. “I don’t believe it could happen in Canada,” said George Fanjoy, manager of central nuclear services at Ontario Hydro. “But I could be proved wrong tomorrow.”
Besides calling the credibility of nickel-alloy piping into question, the Ginna incident has also reawakened citizens’ fears about nuclear safety in general. Ironically, Ontario, N.Y.’s emergency system was tested only four days before the incident. But at least four of the plant’s 78 alarm systems failed to function. Others were so weak they were barely heard, except, some farmers complained, by livestock. “I slept right through the dry run,” said Bernard LeViner, a local lawyer. “When they put this plant in, it was supposed to cut our taxes. But if there’s a disaster it won’t be that much of a saving in the long run.”
During the actual emergency, most of the 6,500 residents heard what was happening on the radio. Many public schools were not alerted, and at least one mother was incensed that she had not been better informed. “I’m not going to put my house up for sale immediately,” Marilyn Larson told Maclean’s. “But I am far more concerned than before.”
The department of agriculture was slightly more in touch. Farmers were urged to keep their livestock indoors. But no one is very clear about what steps people should take—even in the case of a nuclear disaster. “The most advised is the stay-in theory,” says Hugh Spence of Canada’s Atomic Energy Control Board. “That is in opposition to the notion of evacuating people. But the probability of the number of people being killed in car accidents is higher than the risk from the leak.” Perhaps. In any case, Canadians were lucky. The winds were blowing from the northwest at the time of the Ginna incident. Still, Spence admits, there is no formal trans-border warning policy. “We have been drafting an agreement but it isn’t in operation yet.”
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