Bay City Nuclear Plant: how safe is it?

The ongoing crisis at a tsunami-damaged nuclear facility in Japan has raised grave questions about the safety of nuclear power. Texas has two nuclear power plants — one outside Fort Worth and one 90 miles southwest of Houston, near Bay City. KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel looked into how the plant near Houston compares to the damaged plant in Fukushima, Japan.
There are 104 nuclear reactors operating in the U.S.

Two of them are at the South Texas Project, a facility in nearby Matagorda County. Buddy Eller is an STP spokesman:

“For us in south Texas we are concerned with hurricanes, storm surges and flooding. STP is built about 29 feet above mean sea level and we look at worst case scenarios from a flooding standpoint, from a storm-surge standpoint, and have built that into our criteria in the construction of our facility.”

Eller says the reactors can withstand a category 5 hurricane, flooding, or an earthquake. They are protected by 4-foot thick walls of steel-reinforced concrete.

To keep the reactors cool, the plant has three back-up power systems.

The Fukushima plant only had two systems and both failed.

But what about the pools of water where spent rods of fuel are stored?

Paul Padley is a nuclear physicist at Rice University.

"This is a well-known problem, the potential for a fire in a fuel storage pool, is something that has been evaluated a number of times, and is a known risk that has to be ameliorated.”

The newest reports from Japan indicate that one storage pool there has lost all its water, which can cause a meltdown and huge radiation release.

In 2006, U.S. science advisors with the National Academies published a report about the dangers of storage pools for fuel rods.

Again Padley:

“For me at the moment, that’s the bigger concern. It’s not the reactor cores themselves, but the fuel being stored in these pools.”

Eller says that at the South Texas Project, these pools are protected by the methods recommended in the 2006 report.

Those include a system for alternating hotter and cooler rods in specific patterns under the water, and a spray-water system that could cool the rods if the pool loses all its water.

STP has applied for a license to build two new reactors in Matagorda County. But Eller refused to predict whether the Japanese accident could derail those plans.

“It’s very premature at this point to make any statement about the future of new-build projects including units 3 and 4 here in South Texas. Our focus right now is on assisting the Japanese on the emergent situation there.”

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.
Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...