Lake Norman & Mooresville

Public may not know about nuclear plant safety features

The likelihood of a nuclear disaster at Duke Energy's McGuire Station similar to the one being experienced in Japan is virtually non-existent, according to site Vice President Regis Repko.

Repko outlined design features built into the 800-acre Huntersville facility, which offer multiple layers of protection in the event of any emergency, for about 50 local business leaders at a Business Today Newsmakers session April 20 in Cornelius.

"The videos from Japan convey a horrific situation which is hard to imagine" said Repko.

"In truth, it was the tsunami, not the earthquake, which caused so many problems with the Fukushima Power Plant.

"At McGuire, we have a robust design and numerous procedures built into our operations which, we believe, would prevent such a nuclear emergency from ever occurring."

Repko emphasized three major areas at McGuire with extra safeguards:

Seismic impact: McGuire was built to withstand earthquakes far beyond those experienced in the past in this part of the country. In contrast, the Japanese plant sits on the rim of the seismically active Pacific Ocean area.

Water intrusion/flooding: A number of systems have been installed at McGuire to handle the unlikely failure of all upstream water control facilities, such as dams, on Lake Norman and the Catawba River chain. This renders water intrusion into the facility virtually impossible.

Fuel storage: McGuire's fuel-storage facilities are superior to the above-ground units employed and ultimately compromised in Japan.

McGuire Nuclear Station is off N.C. 73 in Huntersville on the south end of Lake Norman. The major portion of Mooresville is outside a 10-mile radius of the plant used to determine who should evacuate in case of an emergency. The lake provides cooling water for McGuire, which actually has two separate nuclear units, each of which generate about 1100 megawatts of electricity or enough to power the entire city of Charlotte. Unit 1 began commercial operation in 1981, followed by Unit 2 in 1984.

Another factor working in favor of McGuire, according to Repko, is the experience of plant employees.

"We have about 1,200 employees at McGuire with an average experience of over 20 years. In fact, a good many of them were involved with the plant during its construction."

In addition to the safety precautions built into the plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) conducts periodic safety inspections and drills to ensure that the facility is operating properly and is safe from attack.

During some of these inspections, the NRC's terrorism team actually conducts a mock attack on the plant.

"This is like the real thing: The NRC team, which is comprised of ex-Navy seals and similarly experienced operatives, makes an aggressive attempt to penetrate our property just to test our resources. So far, they have never succeeded."

Repko says these mock attacks are so real that Duke has to have a fence repair crew on stand-by since the NRC team will often cut their fence in an effort to get to the plant.

In attempting to explain the basic operation of a nuclear plant, Repko, a Pennsylvania native who now lives with his wife, Mary, and their two sons in Denver, said the second part of the production process at McGuire is not unlike a plant powered by fossil fuel such as coal, or natural gas. The difference is that the use of nuclear fuel in the first stage is far more cost efficient, which translates into lower rates for electric customers. In addition, there are no carbon emissions.

When asked why there aren't more nuclear power plants throughout the country, Repko attributed it primarily to lack of education and understanding about the safety features built into the plants.

"When I show some of my fellow plant directors around the country photos we've taken each summer showing Lake Norman boaters enjoying the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra with the nuclear plant in the background they inevitably say that it could never happen in their part of the country."