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Five Potential Nuclear Disasters Just Waiting to Happen

The troubles surrounding Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in the wake of the recent earthquake and tsunami there have set off a debate on the safety of nuclear power in general. Part of the problem at Fukushima appears to be the plant’s outdated design and the engineers’ lack of foresight to plan for both an earthquake and a tsunami. But after Three Mile Island, Chornobyl, and now Fukushima, the question remains whether nuclear power can ever be truly safe.

In light of the disaster, RFE/RL takes a look at five other reactor complexes where safety has been an issue and which prompt concern for the future.

Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, Armenia

Cooling towers of the Metsamor Nuclear Power PlantMetsamor was originally brought online in 1980 in what was then Soviet Armenia. In 1988, the area suffered a devastating 6.9-magnitude earthquake, the epicenter of which was just 75 kilometers away from the plant.

Officials reacted by deactivating Metsamor, but they were forced to switch the plant back on seven years later after the country lost access to energy sources in Turkey and Azerbaijan following the 1988-94 conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Because of its location and age, Metsamor is frequently cited as the most dangerous reactor in the former Soviet Union. The plant is now slated for decommissioning in 2017, but it continues to supply 40 percent of Armenia’s energy, and officials are said to be contemplating building another power plant there to replace it.

A dramatic improvement in Armenia's political and economic relationship with its energy-rich neighbors could reduce the need for a new nuclear plant at Metsamor.

The U.K.'s Nuclear Submarine Fleet

Over the past decade, the United Kingdom has seen a drawn-out debate over the importance of maintaining its vastly expensive nuclear submarine fleet, armed with nuclear ballistic missiles.

A number of incidents and declassified reports have drawn attention to the state of the reactors onboard the fleet. A declassified -- though heavily censored -- report released by the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) revealed serious design flaws.

A document leaked to “The Daily Telegraph” last year revealed that British nuclear submarines had been allowed to leave port with disabled safety valves that would have prevented the reactor from cooling in an emergency.

In 2009, a British nuclear-powered submarine of the Vanguard class, armed with nuclear missiles, ran into a French nuclear submarine that was also armed with nuclear missiles while on patrol. Both governments denied the incident was serious.

Cernavoda Nuclear Power Plant, Romania

Romania’s only nuclear power plant, Cernavoda, was designed in the 1980s by a Canadian company and commissioned in 1996. The plant’s two working reactors account for around one-fifth of Romania’s power needs, but the reactors have been plagued by problems. As recently as January, one of the reactors had to be shut down for maintenance. In April 2009, the site’s second reactor was also shut down briefly due to electrical problems.

While Romania is not as seismically active as Japan, the country does have its share of earthquakes. In recent times, the 1977 Vrancea earthquake – of 7.2 magnitude -- killed more than 1,000 people in Romania and Bulgaria. It destroyed some 35,000 buildings throughout Romania.

Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, Russia

The Russian Federation’s aging fleet of nuclear power plants is a source of worry around the world. Many of the plants are slated for decommissioning but will likely continue to run past their expiration dates until replacements can be built.

Of these, the Leningrad plant may be the most worrisome.

It’s only 70 kilometers from St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, with a population of nearly 5 million.

The Leningrad plant has been plagued by problems over the course of its lifetime. During Soviet times, news of nuclear accidents was tightly controlled, but in 1975 the station suffered a partial meltdown. In 1992, the plant suffered a radioactive gas leak. In 2005, a non-nuclear smelter explosion at the site resulted in one fatality and grave burns to two other victims. In 2009, an accident at the plant led to rumors of a possible coolant leak, which was strongly denied by Russian authorities.

Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, Michigan

Located on Lake Erie between two population centers -- Detroit, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio -- the Enrico Fermi plant has two reactors, though only one is operating currently. Fermi 1 suffered a partial meltdown in 1966, though no radioactivity was released. It operated for a further nine years before being deactivated. The event inspired a best-selling book and at least one protest song.

The site’s second reactor, Fermi 2, continues to operate and, coincidentally, has the same make and model number of the reactors at the Fukushima plant in Japan.

In 2003, a power outage forced the Fermi 2 reactor offline for six hours, and the unit's backup generators failed to perform as planned. Though the site is not located in a seismically active region, the area does suffer from tornadoes and flooding. Last June, the plant suffered a near miss when a tornado passed directly through its two cooling towers.

By. Joseph Hammond

Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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  • Anonymous on March 17 2011 said:
    This article is not worth a lot of consideration, although on the basis of what I know about the technology of plants having a Russian design, I am surprised that there have not been more accidents.Certainly, I don't believe two of the author's five, and as for the problems in Japan, I take that as carelessness. The Fukushima plant should have been located somewhere else, and the Japanese should have started pulling down the other plants and replacing them with Gen 3 facilities like the one in Finland - "like", but perhaps not identical".
  • Anonymous on March 21 2011 said:
    Does anyone else think that a country that builds concrete structures by having men carry buckets of cement on their HEADS to the concrete forms, might have some issues concerning safety? Everyone is so concerned about Iran getting nukes (as in bombs). How about some concern about the reactors themselves? If Japan, one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world can have a melt down, what about the stone throwing, sword wielding, apocalypse generating Iranian government? Are you comfy with that? I don't think I am!
  • mark swann on August 20 2013 said:
    I believe the nuclear plants singled out are the tip of the iceberg. All nuclear plants with high power densities should have have passive cooling capabilities, i.e., a large reservoir of cooling water, situated above the core, which can be made available by a manually operated valve even if the plant loses all electric power.

    The problem with nuclear is the unending struggle between profit and safety. Because nuclear power is intrinsically dangerous, regulation is critical. But good regulation requires stable government and consistent energy planning. It is extraordinarily foolish to design an energy system which is wholly dependent on a problematic energy source.

    The other problem with nuclear is that it is not a good fit with democracy. While here in the USA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed citizens to intervene, the citizens never got anything significant for their trouble. And when a big accident does occur, with thousands of fatalities, citizens near other plants are going to demand that their nuclear plants be shut down. I can just hear them shouting, "You said this could never happen. You promised. Now shut down our plant before it kills us too." Japan has had a good deal of this.

    The irony of building nuclear plants to combat global warming is that the weather extremes already in the pipeline will cause massive nuclear accidents. Nuclear is too late to stop weather change from occurring.

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