Very local translation of Japan nuclear threat

Three weeks from today, Chicago will be on the fault line of all-things nuclear.

The morning of April 4, nuclear energy executives, experts and regulators from across the globe will gather for the World Nuclear Fuel Cycle conference at the Swissotel on E. Wacker Drive.

The annual convention, held in a different international city each year, focuses on “enhancing the economic competitiveness of the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear energy.”

The convention is put on by the Nuclear Energy Institute, one of the most formidable lobbying organizations in Washington, and the World Nuclear Association that represents 180 companies and the nuclear energy industry around the world.

Why Chicago? The conference is a natural for us, really. We are surrounded by the heaviest concentration of nuclear power generating plants in the United States. There are 11 boiling or pressurized water reactors, and closed-but-contaminated nuclear power stations, within our radiation-reach.

In addition to the cocktail parties, a customized Taste of Chicago for nuclear delegates at Navy Pier and other merriment, there will be serious seminars, breakout sessions and tours of Fermilab and Argonne National Lab in the suburbs — all aimed at advancing the safe use of nuclear power.

In view of what is happening in Japan, perhaps they should also add a quick side trip to Morris. That is where the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant is located, cranking out electricity to millions of suburban Chicago residents.

Exelon/ComEd owns and operates a pair of General Electric Mark 1 nuclear reactors at Dresden, among 23 GE Mark 1 units now in use in the United States. That is the same model of water-cooled reactor that was in use at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Unit — the one that exploded on Saturday.

Dresden's GE Mark 1 reactors are among the oldest in use in the U.S. (circa 1970-71.) A tour of the facility by conference attendees would give them a perfect look at the same equipment that failed following the 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

You don't have to be a nuclear physicist to understand that either the Japanese plants were not built to withstand an 8.9 earthquake or they were built to withstand such a temblor, but didn't live up to those specifications.

Regardless, Fukushima's primary and backup cooling systems failed and the reactor had to be flooded with seawater to cool the core. That is evidence Japanese officials have thrown in the towel on ever using that facility again, according to nuclear experts.

When it comes to their teetering nuclear plants, since Friday's earthquake, Japanese government and power company officials seem to have been practicing a proverb that means “too much is bad.”

As in truthful information.

TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, stated in its public safety pledge the utility's nuclear plants were “designed for the Largest Conceivable Earthquake: before constructing a nuclear plant, the site is carefully studied for previous earthquake records and geological features. This study establishes that there is no active fault under the site.”

Following a 2007 earthquake of only 6.6 magnitude that closed down seven reactors for two years, a TEPCO executive said “We did not assume an earthquake of this magnitude at the time of designing the nuclear power plant. After looking at aftershock location data, we have come to realize a fault lies right below the plant.”

Illinois' Dresden facility is perched on the far northern fringe of a similarly dangerous, although not nearly as active, underground fault zone.

Some 200 years ago, the New Madrid Fault shifted and produced an 8.1 earthquake affecting 50,000 square miles. The shaker rang church bells as far away as Boston.

“We're talking a significant seismic area that has been quiet for 200 years,” states Dave Kraft, director of the watchdog Nuclear Energy Information Service headquartered on Chicago's Northwest side.

“Let's hope it stays that way because the reactors that are built in this area, the regulators claim, can withstand that kind of damage or impact. But this is exactly what the Japanese engineers were claiming in Japan,” Kraft said.

A few years ago, the U.S. government made public “Worst Case Scenarios” that would occur if there was an accident at a nuclear facility or chemical plant. The public release of those death-toll projections stopped when somebody in Washington determined such accidents were too unlikely and causing too much panic.

So, as occurred in Japan, we will never know how well protected we are until something actually happens.

We metro-Chicagoans are forced to rely on the good will of big-energy Exelon and on state inspections of nuclear power plants to keep us safe.

By law, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is supposed check for radioactive leaks at plants every three months.

But a report last month by the Illinois Auditor General found that “…two quarterly inspections were not made for two of the six nuclear power plants in Illinois during fiscal year 2009. In addition, quarterly inspections for the first, second and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2010 for another two of the six nuclear power plants were not made.”

The EPA blamed the skipped inspections on “time constraints” and a “lack of trained staff.” A spokesman now says the agency has hired another employee and is back on track.

One of the plants not inspected was Dresden, right down I-55, local home of the same model reactor that was in use at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Unit.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at and followed at