By Matt Nauman
As part of a U.S. team that went to Japan to visit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, John Conway, PG&E’s senior vice president of energy supply, saw firsthand the destructive nature of the tsunami that devastated the facility in March 2011.
“It’s one thing to see something on TV,” he said. “It’s something altogether different to see it up close, to see the incredible force of the tsunami and the damage it caused.”
On a bus going to the site of the nuclear plant, Conway saw rubble left when homes and businesses were destroyed when walls of water followed the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the Tōhoku region in Japan.
At the plant site, trucks and tanks were tossed like children’s toys and heavy cranes snapped in two. The buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, however, were largely intact, a testament to how well the reinforced concrete structures survived the quake and tsunami.
‘Lessons Learned’ report released
Conway joined other industry leaders in April on the fact-finding trip sponsored by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), whose mission is to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability in the operation of nuclear electric generating plants. The Nuclear Energy Institute released INPO’s “Lessons Learned” Report on the Fukushima accident on Aug. 3.
Among those lessons:
- Reactor cooling is the top safety priority during any unusual event. Resources and training should be allocated to emphasize this fundamental priority.
- Emergency response capability must include the staff and resources necessary to respond effectively to a severe condition at each reactor at a facility.
- Continually strengthen the industry’s safety culture using the lessons from Fukushima to drive continuous learning from operating experience, a questioning attitude among reactor operators, and awareness of the unique aspects of nuclear energy technology.
Conway was hand-picked by INPO to be a part of the nine-member delegation based on his level of expertise and his three-decade career in the nuclear industry – as a senior licensed operator, a company executive and a chief nuclear officer. That includes time spent running boiling-water reactor plants, similar to those damaged in Japan. Based on his time working in California at PG&E, Conway is intimately familiar with seismic evaluations and the necessary precautions related to a potential tsunami.
Joining him in Japan were members from the INPO staff, Exelon and the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station as well as a representative from the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO).
The purpose of the trip was to learn from what happened during last year’s tragedy. “This was a great opportunity for representatives of the nuclear industry to study and learn about the impact of the tsunami on plants in that region in Japan,” Conway said.
The group spent time with the utility that runs Fukushima Daiichi, TEPCO, at their headquarters in Tokyo, talking to utility and government officials, as well as workers and representatives from other nuclear plants.
Interviews to understand sequence of events
Although this was Conway’s first visit to Japan, it came after more than year of work by industry leaders in analyzing what led to the accident and how the industry could learn from it.
That’s because Conway and other chief nuclear officers from around the nation began monitoring the situation almost instantly last March. From the day of the accident, groups of U.S. nuclear-industry leaders held daily calls and continue to meet regularly to learn from it.
“We wanted to go over there and interview a lot of people and collect additional information to fill in the blanks on the timeline, the sequence of events, which had been previously established by a team from INPO,” Conway said.
The group wanted to obtain “a very objective and clear understanding of what happened, when and why,” Conway said. “What were the lessons learned that all the nuclear operators, not just in the United States, but around the world, need to consider for safety improvements going forward?”
Conway already has shared some high-level findings with his counterparts from other U.S. nuclear plants.
“The U.S. nuclear industry is one of the most regulated in the world, and our plants are designed to withstand regional environmental hazards that experts have postulated could occur,” he said.
“That said, we are not complacent, and as an industry we continually study, evaluate and learn from experiences such as what happened in Japan. The big lesson to be learned is to expect and to prepare for the unexpected.”
Although the information learned during the trip to Japan will benefit the global nuclear industry, Conway was quick to point out that plant operators, including PG&E, which runs Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County, already are taking action.
“Nobody is standing still waiting for the next layer of learning to come out,” he said. “We’re committed to safety and improving our safety each and every day.”
At Diablo Canyon, many actions to ensure, improve safety
Since Fukushima, PG&E has taken strong and definitive actions to continuously improve the safety of Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County.
- Confirmed that Diablo Canyon’s design is appropriate and able to withstand regional environmental hazards, including tsunamis and the largest credible earthquakes that could potentially result from nearby faults;
- Verified the safety of the plant’s systems and emergency response procedures;
- Created a team to examine opportunities to improve the facility’s ability to withstand beyond-design-basis events;
- Initiated physical modifications and other enhancements to strengthen the ability of the plant to withstand beyond-design-basis events, including extended blackouts, without experiencing fuel damage;
- Conducted rigorous emergency preparedness training, specifically for beyond-design-basis events. This includes the ability to initiate emergency procedures for multiple-unit events, as well as training and qualifications for beyond-design-basis events procedures;
- Purchased additional emergency equipment such as pumps and pipes that the plant may need during a beyond-design-basis event.
PG&E’s ongoing focus on safety extends to continually evaluating seismic issues and applying new information to help assure that the facility remains seismically safe through the company’s Long Term Seismic Program and Advanced Seismic studies
Email Matt Nauman at firstname.lastname@example.org.