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There are those in America's nuclear power industry who say things might have been different in Japan had technicians there undergone American-style disaster training. Those at the Fukushima plant, like all nuclear workers in Japan, trained on generic simulators. Here in the U.S., every nuclear power plant has an exact mock-up of its control room, so plant operators can practice more realistic disaster scenarios.
NPR's Richard Harris traveled to a nuclear power plant in Mississippi, to sit in on one of these training sessions.
RICHARD HARRIS: The Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station sits not far from the Mississippi River, south of Vicksburg. And one recent morning, reactor operators who would normally report to work at the plant instead show up for work in a building outside the fence, overlooking the plant's iconic cooling tower.
(Soundbite of machinery)
Unidentified Man #1: Testing. Testing.
HARRIS: They step into a room that looks all the world like the control room where they spend most of their working days.
Mr. PAT BERRY (Director, Training and Development, Entergy): What you're seeing is a physical replica down to the books on the shelves and where the trashcans are located, of what the operators will use on a day-to-day basis in the plant.
HARRIS: Pat Berry is head of training for Entergy, the plant's owner. And he's here today to watch as the operators are put to the test, with a very bad day at the plant.
(Soundbite of alarm)
HARRIS: Lights start flashing almost immediately.
Unidentified Man #2: Ready for update.
Unidentified Man #3: Ready.
Unidentified Man #2: CRD malfunctions, O-nep due to bravo CRD pump trip. End of update.
HARRIS: A pump has failed.
Unidentified Man #4: Check CRD pump valve for alpha operating properly...
HARRIS: But as the crew checks to make sure a back-up pump is working properly, they're hit with another barrage of alarms.
(Soundbite of alarms)
Unidentified Man #2: We've lost AC power. O-nep due to loss of 15 bus. End of update.
HARRIS: A major loss of power compounds their pump problems. And if power can't be restored quickly, the rules say to shut down the reactor fast. And now adrenaline starts to flow.
Unidentified Man #2: Attention all personnel. Attention all personnel, evacuate containment. Evacuate containment.
HARRIS: As each event unfolds, the crew reacts by the book, literally. They flip open loose-leaf binders that guide them through the crisis procedures. At this point, it's an emergency shutdown.
Unidentified Man #5: Reactor pressure is about 950 PSIG and stable. All control rods are full in. Reactor power is zero and stable...
(Soundbite of alarm)
HARRIS: But just as it seems everything is under control, more alarms.
(Soundbite of alarms)
Unidentified Man #2: Ready for update?
Unidentified Man #6: Ready.
Unidentified Man #7: Ready.
Unidentified Man #8: Ready.
Unidentified Man #2: We have a LOCA in the drywell. End of update.
HARRIS: LOCA is a loss of coolant accident. In real life, this is very serious. It was meltdown serious at Fukushima Dai-ichi.
Mr. BARRY: So essentially they have a hole in the reactor so they're losing water out of the reactor. So the challenge to the crew now is to figure out how to keep the core covered and cooled, even though they've got a hole in a pipe, they've got a loss of a major part of the electrical distribution system, and they're missing that control rod drive pump we took away from them at beginning of the scenario.
HARRIS: In the end, training chief Pat Bury says this crew makes the right call, releasing billows of make-believe steam into a chamber called the drywell, so they can relieve pressure and pump more water into the reactor.
In real life, Berry says, this would ruin the nuclear fuel, but it would prevent a meltdown.
Mr. BARRY: The instructors have stopped the scenario. And at this point we'll start doing a critique.
HARRIS: You ever end up with a scenario where you actually have a meltdown?
Mr. BARRY: It can happen. If the operators take the right actions, we should be able to avoid that. But occasionally we'll challenge the operating crew to the point where, you know, they may find difficulty in doing that.
HARRIS: Berry says reactor operators in these training scenarios can respond to some pretty intense crises, on the scale even of Fukushima.
But David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at a watchdog group called the Union of Concerned Scientists, says he's skeptical that the mess in Japan could have been prevented - given the real-world conditions there.
Mr. DAVID LOCHBAUM (Union of Concerned Scientists): Training would have helped deal with the challenge they had. But when you're faced with the loss of power for as long as Fukushima went, I think they might have changed the pathway a little bit. But I think the destination would have been largely the same.
HARRIS: And Lochbaum says you can't truly simulate the kind of crisis response we saw at Fukushima, where a lot of the action took place outside the control rooms. Workers scrambled around to read dials, fix electrical circuits and struggle with stalled pumps. And he adds training might not be enough when a crew is confronting not only severe conditions but simultaneous crises at multiple reactors.
Mr. LOCHBAUM: Fukushima showed us that we could have an across-the-board situation, where all the reactors are in jeopardy, and there's no on-site cavalry that can come running to the aid of the operators on the accident unit.
HARRIS: Lochbaum says overall the U.S. training system is an important element of emergency preparedness, but no guarantee that crews here can handle anything and everything thrown their way.
Richard Harris, NPR News.