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Five Nuclear Disasters Waiting To Happen

The Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, Armenia
The Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, Armenia
By Joseph Hammond
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 Part of the problem at Fukushima appears to be the plant’s outdated design and the engineers’ lack of foresight to plan for both an earthquake and a tsunami.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 Plant
Metsamor 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

A British Trident nuclear submarine



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

A general view of the Cernavoda Nuclear Power Plant


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

Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant


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

The 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.
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by: Michiganian from: USA
March 16, 2011 12:35
The Fermi nuclear plants near Detroit are on Lake Erie not Lake Michigan. Also, Fermi 1, was decommissioned in the 1970's. Fermi 2 is similar to 22 other nuclear plants in the US (many in tornado or hurricane prone areas) so why single it out? Michigan's small tornados are not comparable to Oklahoma F5 "wedge" tornados that do enormous amounts of damage. I am much more concerned with nuclear reactors on the Pacific coast of the US than anywhere in the Midwest. It took BOTH an earthquake and a tsunami to cause the Fukushima reactors to overheat.

by: Doug Bernard from: Washington
March 16, 2011 13:25
Great story...just one minor correction. The Fermi plant in Michigan is actually located on Lake Eire, not Lake Michigan.

by: Moderator from: Prague
March 16, 2011 13:36
Correction made. Thanks much.

by: Conservationist from: Vermont, USA
March 16, 2011 16:20
Here in Vermont, USA, we've also got a GE Mark I BWR-type reactor (same as several of the reactors at the Fukushima Plant) that began operation in 1972 and is slated for decommisioning next year (2012). Of course the company wants an extension to operate the plant for another 20 years, approval for which was recently granted by the federal conmission that grants aproval for these things (the NRC). The good news is, that unique to our State, our legislature fought for the right to have a say in whether this plant can continue to operate. So, regardless of the Federal sanctioning, there is every chance that our State will deny a license - setting up a potential battle between the state and the federal government. This is due in large part to the fact that, among a host of historic problems, right now we're dealing with several leaks that are pouring radioactive Tritium into the groundwater around the plant. Also, given the plant's location on the banks of the Connecticut River, the fear that one unexpected flood could overwhelm the redundancy systems currently in place (or one unexpected earthquake for that matter) is very pronounced, more so now that we've seen what unexpected flooding can cause. At least the disaster in Japan is lending much needed credibility to the anti-nuclear movement everywhere - its just so unfortunate that is takes these kinds of events to make people wake up.

by: Adrian from: Romania
March 16, 2011 18:20
Well I don't understand why a CANDU (like Cernavoda ) nuclear central is on your list. I think that your list neglect a large number of russian centrals and some american. If you prove that someone from your site just visited the Cernavoda plant I believe in your list. And finally I want to see your "sources", because i think that your judgement about Cernavoda is severely flawed and not fair.
In Response

by: Olivia from: Bucharest, Romania
March 16, 2011 21:24
Adrian,
Thank you for your comment. I fully agree with you.
I don't like to compare Cernavoda NPP with other NPP presented here but I consider unfair this classification of the plant.
Probably Cernavoda is not the safest nuclear power plant in the word, but, for sure is not a potential nuclear disaster.
In Response

by: Daniel from: Atyrau, Kazakhstan
March 18, 2011 09:39
Take a look to this site: http://www.catooncampus.org/article/show/46.html

Joseph Hammond, the author of this article didn't show in his career too much attention to engineering, much less to nuclear technologies. And suddenly he's making a top 5 of something from nuclear field. Is pretty hard to believe that this article does not have a crocodile as background.

by: American Troll from: Wisconsin
March 16, 2011 20:15
I'm surprised not to see Bulgaria's Kozloduy on the list. It's been my top pick for decades now. When Bulgaria and Romania both jumped into the Iraq War, I semi-seriously expected a Cessna full of ammonium nitrate fertilizer to make a suicide-dive into Kozloduy. And yes, just to clarify, I'm not advocating such a thing, if that even needs to be said.

by: Lucas Foxx from: Seattle
March 16, 2011 20:30
Modern weather stations are good at giving advance warning of Tornados. These hardened structures should survive tornado damage, but the advanced warning should give them plenty of time to secure the system.
In Response

by: Michiganian from: USA
March 17, 2011 07:41
Exactly. Why the nuclear power plant in earthquake-prone Seattle is not on this list is a complete mystery. Seattle area hasn't had a major earthquake in 300 years---it is long overdue for "the Big One". There are also nuclear plants along the California coast, at least one right on the shore! An earthquake/tsunami disaster is just waiting to happen there. Nuclear plants can survive bad weather, but earthquakes are much harder to design against and they are harder to predict.

by: alex from: Romania
March 16, 2011 21:56
Another poorly documented article from RFE/RL. Visit Cernavoda nuclear power plant and Kozloduy and compare them.

by: Ovi from: Canada
March 16, 2011 23:17
I'm surprised by this article. Especially that the Bulgarian nuclear plant is not in your list.
I know well the nuclear plant from Romania (Cernavoda). The two reactors are safe and in good conditions. The shutdown of the reactors it was scheduled for planned maintenance. The author of this article is not informed.
In Response

by: Jorjo from: Florida
March 17, 2011 17:52
Why should be the Bulgarian nuclear plant, 'Kozloduy' be on this list? Even though it is old, in operation since 1974, it has never experienced a major or even minor accidents, Bulgarian government at an immense cost to its economy fully fulfilled its obligations toward the EU membership and took out of operation units 1 and 2 (the oldest) in 2004. It took them out after only 30 years of operation even though they were projected to operate normally for at least 40. Fukushima reactors are 40 years old. Under further political, not safety-concerns, pressure Bulgaria took the newer units 3-4 also out of operation at the end of 2006. Shutting down of these four units (out of total of six) was a purely political bow to the EU and a direct attempt to prevent a future bid from Russia to build at much lower cost and as safe as the Western reactors additional units at Kozloduy or Belene. It appears that so far these calculations have succeeded resulting in a sky-rocketing increase of the cost of electricity in Bulgaria and placing a heavy burden on the already impoverished population. The 1995 US Department of Energy claim that Kozloduy was one of the 10 most dangerous NPS was a pure propaganda and fiction aimed to damage the prospects of possible future negotiations with Russian contractors.
In Response

by: Razvan from: Bucharest
March 18, 2011 10:04
Jorjo is absolutely right! The VVER-1000 are very good and reliable reactors, even the VVER-440 that they've been forced by EU to close, were good and safe, it was just another political decision. There used to be planned trips from Romania, for nuclear energy students to visit those reactors in Bulgaria, reliable and well done.

by: typical romanian guy from: Bucureşti
March 16, 2011 23:22
I am wondering how did this journalist managed to finish high-school?
In Response

by: So from: Armenia
March 23, 2011 09:00
The author doesn't contradicts himself. He thinks the Armenian NPP is the first one to explode, ignoring the fact that it didn't suffer a bit from the 1988 devastating earthquake, and before and after it was re-opened in 1995, very serious upgrade of safety, including seismic standards was undertaken, with the assistance of IAEA, France, Russia, US and other countries. Also, he is against building a new modern nuclear power plant in its place while the old one providing 40% of energy of Armenia, can be dismantled only if the new one is built. He suggests improvement of relations of Armenia with neighbors - the experience of the last few decades has shown it is not happening, and even if it happens now, Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey pipelines have already been built excluding Armenia, they are not going to be rebuilt.
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