STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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NPR's Richard Harris traveled to a nuclear power plant in Mississippi, to sit in on one of these training sessions.
RICHARD HARRIS: Unidentified Man #1: Testing. Testing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
HARRIS: They step into a room that looks all the world like the control room where they spend most of their working days.
PAT BERRY: 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: Unidentified Man #3: Ready.
CRD: CRD malfunctions, O-nep due to bravo CRD pump trip. End of update.
HARRIS: A pump has failed.
CRD: 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)
AC: We've lost AC power. O-nep due to loss of 15 bus. End of update.
HARRIS: 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.
PSIG: Reactor pressure is about 950 PSIG and stable. All control rods are full in. Reactor power is zero and stable...
(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)
HARRIS: Unidentified Man #8: Ready.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALARMS)
LOCA: 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.
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 real life, Berry says, this would ruin the nuclear fuel, but it would prevent a meltdown.
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?
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: 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.
DAVID LOCHBAUM: 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.
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: Richard Harris, NPR News.
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