by Kelly Gustafson/Medill News Service
It’s a modern-day fortress. Buried behind multiple security checkpoints, fingerprint scans, layers of razor-sharp barbed wire fencing, concrete K rails and supervised card-access points at every entryway stand two mammoth nuclear reactors.
Every inch of the 4,500-acre site is under constant surveillance by cameras and guards that man eight tall watchtowers 24 hours a day.
The Exelon nuclear reactor is in Braidwood, Illinois, a small town about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. It is a secure place.
But despite its heavily fortified shell and the stigma it bears as a nuclear plant, a tour of the plant revealed that it may be all bark and no bite.
“Exelon Nuclear is dedicated to full transparency,” said Mike Pacilio, president and chief nuclear officer of the corporation, in a press release. “We know that the more the public knows about the safety of the U.S nuclear industry, the more confident they feel about nuclear power as a source of safe, abundant and clean energy.”
Exelon released the statement as we approach the anniversary of the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, an event that prompted many to question the safety of our own nuclear plants at home.
Watching the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Japan was scary, but Exelon jumped at the opportunity to fly engineers to Japan. They used their expertise to help where they could and brought lessons back to the States.
The main lesson, according to engineers at Braidwood, was to expect the unexpected and prepare for the unimaginable. The disaster at Fukushima stemmed from a massive power outage that shutdown pumps that cool the fuel.
The plant is engineered to withstand tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and even hurricanes. Braidwood has flood barriers that include watertight doors and elevating the equipment above flood levels.
But the most important safety feature may be the four massive diesel power generators, each with second, third and fourth layers of backups. In an emergency, the generators would provide enough power to pump water from the lake into the fuel pools to keep the nuclear rods from overheating.
“As soon as the crisis in Japan started, we knew we’d get a lot of interest. So we put together a team with news releases, letters to neighbors and community information nights,” said Neal Miller, communication manager at Braidwood.
In the emergency-preparedness center in the heart of the plant, an operator stands by 24 hours. There are drills and procedures for everything: an employee slips and his wounds are exposed to radioactive materials, a 6.9 earthquake rocks the area, or a 747 plane crashes into the side of the building, an operator said.
The over-preparedness theme was comforting, given the colossal amount of power—enough for 2 million homes — the plant produces each year.
Braidwood houses two of Illinois’ 11 reactors that are scattered throughout the state and the nuclear waste stays on site in dry casks. The casks are insulated by 4 feet of concrete and the fuel can stay in there for hundreds of years while the government decides what to do with it all.
One possibility is storing the nuclear waste in Yucca Mt. in Nevada. All of the used fuel from the United States’ 104 reactors for the past 40 years could fit into a football stadium, my tour guides told me, considering one uranium pellet is roughly the size of a pencil eraser.