By Paula C. Squires
French power company Areva stepped up efforts Wednesday to assist Japan in averting a nuclear disaster, with its U. S. subsidiaries playing a role by providing equipment and expertise. As the situation deteriorated at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Areva said that a chartered plan was leaving soon for Japan with 3,000 activated charcoal protective masks, 10,000 overalls and 20,000 gloves.
Nuclear measurement equipment is being supplied by Canberra, a subidiary of AREVA in Meriden, Conn. The aircraft also will carry 100 tons of boric acid, a neutron absorber, made available by Electricite de France, the world’s largest utility company. On Monday, Areva donated 1 million euros to the Japanese Red Cross, or about $1.4 million, to aid in recovery efforts.
The Paris-based nuclear engineering company is the parent of Areva Inc. in Lynchburg. The Central Virginia operation is Areva’s largest North American office with 2,000 employees in the Lynchburg area. It focuses primarily on providing service to the 104 existing nuclear plants in the U.S While Areva Inc. isn’t sending personnel or supplies, it is providing technical expertise to Areva‘s teams, said spokeswoman Catherine Mosley, along with education on nuclear energy to the U. S. public.
As the drama surrounding the breached plant continues to unfold with explosions, fire, radiation leaks and struggles by plant operators to cool the reactors following last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami, Virginia’s energy companies are following the situation closely. “Our nuclear group has already assigned a team to begin assembling these lessons that are being learned and to look at our plans and to make sure that we are learning those lessons. Other nuclear groups are doing the same thing,” said Jim Norvelle, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power, which has two nuclear units — and is contemplating a third — at its North Anna Power Station in Louisa County.
A spokesman for Babcock & Wilcox Co.’s nuclear operations group in Lynchburg said officials there also are monitoring “the situation very closely.”
Asked what impact the potential catastrophe could have on U. S. nuclear policy, Norvelle and others said it’s too early to tell. “There are so many things that we don’t yet know. “ Plus, there are plenty of questions: “… How was the power station laid out, where were the parts, what actually happened? As anyone can see, they’re still working very heroically to control these reactors. We’re going to hear some stories that we’re not going to believe before this is all over regarding acts of heroism by employees.”
With haunting images of Japanese in radiation masks flooding U. S. news outlets, other industry experts expect an immediate impact. The psychological impact alone will be unsettling, said Frank Settle, a chemistry professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington and a principal investigator for the Nuclear Energy Education in the 21st Century Project. “Chernobyl had a huge impact,” he said, referring to the 1986 explosion and fire at a Ukrainian nuclear power plant that killed more than 30 people and contaminated a large area with radiation. “At Three Mile Island, the psychological impact was huge, but the physical impact was minimal,” said Settle. The core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pa., caused no injuries or deaths, but effectively put an end to the construction of new nuclear plants in the U S. for nearly three decades.
The crisis also will weaken funding for new U S. nuclear plants, said Settle. “Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build — about $10 billion a pop. The utilities don’t have that kind of capital. So they have to go to the investment community, and the investment community was already a little bit squirrelly about taking risks with nuclear power. I think this will make partners hard to come by in this environment.”
That would be bad news for Richmond-based Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility. It still plans to seek an operating license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a third reactor at North Anna, Norvelle said. However, the company needs an equity partner to finance the project. “We don’t have an equity partner yet. We want to keep the option open to meet future demand.” Dominion expects the NRC to rule on its application in 2013. “Then it becomes a business decision, and we’ll have to decide if we want to go through with it,” Norvelle said.
Dominion’s nuclear reactors in Virginia, two at Lake Anna and another two at Surry Power Station in Surry County, are not the same design as the boiling water reactors in Japan. However, Settle noted that the U. S. still has about 20 of the older boiling water reactors, which are based on a 1970s design.
Despite all the concern about the outcome for Japan, Norvelle said that the nation’s energy policy won’t benefit from a quick reaction. “Twenty percent of U. S. energy comes from nuclear. It’s the only large-scale source of emissions free electricity. We’re very supportive of all the alternative forms of energy, but when you’re talking about large amounts of electricity available every day of the week, that is emissions free, you’re really talking about nuclear.”
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