Facing the fires of a meltdown - lessons learned from Fukushima

Published:  04 August, 2014

For Robert Lewin, Fire Chief, CAL FIRE/San Luis Obispo County the lessons are clear: protection of nuclear facilities by skilled full-time onsite fire departments and well-trained and equipped offsite fire departments needs to be significantly increased. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must require that industry, local, state, and federal fire fighting services review and participate in comprehensive improvements to the way nuclear power plants are protected. Summary of Fire Chief Lewin’s presentation at the NFPA 2014 Conference and Expo.

Having a power plant in his jurisdiction is one (of many) concerns for Chief Lewin, and this concern grew as he watched events in Fukushima unfold, particularly when Tokyo Fire Department firefighters were filmed engaging in the incident. ‘What are they doing, what’s going on here? Why are firefighters going to a nuclear power plant and putting water on a reactor and in these spent fuel pools?’

It led Lewin to consider what could these firefighters have done to prepare themselves in advance for an event such as this. ‘If the firefighters are as confused in the US as they were in Japan, then it’s time to prepare us.’

Lewin was particularly concerned with what he termed ‘black swan’ events. These he explained as the type of events that are outside the realm of accepted possibility. ‘People didn’t think black swans existed, until they found one. A black swan event is something that radically changes our view because we have no idea it is going to happen.’ Chernobyl, 9/11, Fukushima – these are types of black swan events that have had massive follow-on impacts.

In a fire protection context, fire engineers typically create inherently safe designs beyond the required design basis. Fukushima was not designed to be hit by a 45ft wave that would cause multiple unit blackouts, so there were no plans for this type of emergency. Prior to Fukushima, Lewin, his firefighters and the utility had never trained for total blackouts at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. ‘But we do now, we’re on that, because we’re going beyond design basis.’

If the expectations are that firefighters will attend such incidents, then the fire service must prepare for working in radiological environments, as Tokyo’s firefighters had to when they were using fire engines in a way that Lewin had never thought possible – direct water application onto the reactors. Lewin questioned whether these firefighters had been trained in time distance shielding, and whether this type of knowledge was being taught in the US. ‘I can tell you; my firefighters have only trained on this in the classroom. They’ve only been told the standard lecture… we never went through the scenario of, “There’s radiation here, you can spend 15 minutes here and walk away with an acceptable dose.” We’ve never trained like that. Should we?’

Fukushima drove Lewin to apply the principle of ‘going beyond the design principle’ at his local utility, Diablo Canyon Power Plant, a facility that brings enormous benefits to the local community and beyond.

A study led by the Cal Poly Orfalea College of Business calculates the total annual economic impact of Diablo Canyon Power Plant at $2 billion nationwide, $1.1 billion in California, and $920 million in San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties.

In his presentation, Lewin ran through examples of possible training scenarios with DC Plant, for instance the laying of hose down a hill from water pool sources down to the plant, or drawing water directly from the ocean. ‘If we can do it, why wait? Why not do it on a sunny day?’ In fact, Diablo Canyon has invested in 6,000 ft of hose and pumps, as well as two fire appliances staffed by five dedicated firefighters. ‘So if they have that hose and those pumps, let’s practice with them.’

An MOU has been signed  between DC Plant and San Luis Obispo to agree on a number of issues including frequency of training exercises; structure of unified command; acceptable radiation levels for firefighters; as well as procedure for onsite and offsite emergencies.

The initiative has forced both parties to address who is responsible for what, including fighting a fire in the nuclear power plant itself. ‘I thought that would be easy to figure out. But it isn’t. What we came up with is that outside the power block was County Fire Department’s jurisdiction, but the power block itself was the NRC’s (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) responsibility. However, how we handle it at Diablo Canyon is that we go to unified command regardless of whose and where that fire is.’

Lewin has responded to four major wildfires around the plant, one of which occurred prior to the facility being licensed, and which took out all the power lines going into the plant. ‘There were two transformer explosions, one of which sent shrapnel into an admin building where – had people been at their desks – they would have been injured or killed.’ An ensuing oil fire was knocked off by the in-house Diablo Canyon Fire Department. Their action saved an additional transformer, a cost saving which more than paid for the establishment of that same fire department.

After outlining some successful joint projects between Diablo Canyon Fire Department and CAL FIRE (eg prescribed burning of brush around the plant) Lewin emphasised that, nevertheless, on a general level much work remained in the field of nuclear power plant protection. The County Fire Chief, for example, doesn’t have the authority to impress change on power plants, which are regulated by the NRC. Lewin emphasised that a public private relationship in emergency response was super-critical. ‘I want to assure the nuclear industry that we can work together, we need to be brought into it.’

A number of recommendations were suggested. All nuclear power plants should have onsite firefighters, with fire stations located away from reactors (there are only 10 nuclear plants in the US that have full time fire departments – most plants use operators that volunteer as firefighters). Nuclear firefighters should be trained to industry standards; offsite responders should participate in onsite training at the power block; and entry protocols should be addressed: ‘The security systems need to be trained on how to get us in really quickly and not hold us up at the gates.’

Time-distance shielding training should take place outside the classroom both for plant workers and offsite responders; and specialist equipment should be stored offsite.

Concluding, Lewin said that although improvements had already occurred in many nuclear power plants, there was still much more to do. The general approach was no different to dealing with other fire hazards. ‘The first thing we always try to do is prevent the fire from happening, so we educate people; we try to keep them safe. Second, we design things that don’t cause fires… we could put sprinklers in buildings to try and contain them. Third, we can rapidly deploy firefighters and we try to stop the fire becoming really hostile, controlling it quickly so it doesn’t continue spreading. That’s the same thing we need to do for nuclear plant protection.’

In Japan, the main deployment of firefighters did not occur until seven days after the event. ‘What if they had been able to get those firefighters mobilised and working on those kinds of operations on day two? How much radiation would have occurred? Could there have been one less meltdown if that had been in their toolbox as an option? And, finally, fire departments need to be part of the discussion.’

Closing, Lewin pointed out that there was much to learn from Fukushima, but human nature was such that memories fade quickly. ‘We have such short memories. How do we keep this one going so that we can prepare?’

  • Operation Florian

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