Photo by Daveeza

Applying the lessons to Wyoming

By Steve Jones

THE EARTHQUAKE AND NUCLEAR DISASTER IN JAPAN may have its repercussions here in Wyoming.

Whether a dampened enthusiasm for nuclear power will ultimately decrease the demand for and the price of uranium remains to be seen. But we can all learn some important lessons from the nuclear power plant failures.

One lesson underscored by the ongoing crisis in Japan is the need for a truly robust system of backup power supplies in potentially dangerous industrial operations.

It seems that much of the radioactive releases from the Fukushima Daiichi plant might have been avoided if, when the primary and initial backup power sources failed, there had been an emergency source of electricity to power the pumps that are used to cool the nuclear fuel rods.

The need for effective and readily available backup power is not unique to nuclear plants. The Japan disaster is a disquieting reminder that it should be a basic requirement for any industrial operation that could become dangerous to people and the environment should its primary power sources fail.

We have no nuclear power plants in Wyoming—perhaps a fact that should make us all happy, given the tectonically sensitive region in which we live.

But we have plenty of uranium, as well as other ongoing natural resource extraction and refining activities that can threaten us all with dangerous chemicals and radioactivity—if the operators are not careful, and the regulators are not diligent.

Sinclair Refinery near Rawlins, Wyoming. Photo by Scott Kane.

Oil refineries and in-situ uranium mining

While nuclear power plant failure can be catastrophic, other energy sources can and do cause fatalities, as well as harm to the environment.

Oil refineries can have so-called upsets that threaten an entire town, as in the case of the Sinclair Refinery in recent years. Uranium extraction and milling can have radioactive spills and leaks that threaten workers and local groundwater.

In-situ uranium mining involves maintaining a draw-down, or “cone of depression,” within the mineral zone where the uranium is being extracted.

This requires the use of pumps (powered by electricity) to draw the groundwater into the center of the mineral zone in order to prevent the contaminated water and the associated uranium and lixivient (the fluid used to liquify the uranium) from escaping.

Without maintaining the cone of depression, groundwater being used for other purposes, such as livestock watering or for drinking water, could be rendered harmful or just plain useless if contaminated by the radioactive waste.

So it is paramount that uranium mining companies take steps to anticipate a shutdown of electrical power that runs those pumps that keep the contamination under control.

In the same way that nuclear reactors need robust backup systems in case of power outages and system failures, uranium mines and processing plants also have a need for backup power. Power to run the pumps that will keep the underground contamination in place must be available at all times, or excursions could occur.

Therefore, a backup generator of sufficient power to run the pumps during a power outage should always be maintained and on-site, to prevent plumes of groundwater contamination from leaving the mine project site.

Oil refineries should also have robust backup power readily available.

There have been all too many incidents in Wyoming of “upsets” at refineries due to a power failure of some type—either because the equipment at a refinery failed to operate, or the electricity powering that equipment went off-line.

The Sinclair refinery is a prime example. The company has two external power sources—but both of which are sourced from the same provider: Rocky Mountain Power. There has been no independent power source at the refinery to kick in when its primary source has failed.

What is needed is a commitment at oil refineries to what engineers call “redundancy” in power supplies.

Systems may fail, but backup systems should be in place that will “carry the load” of critical operations in a refinery, or allow it to shut down safely until power can be restored, or the system repaired.

Greater regulation is also required. Too often in the past—when power outages have resulted in emissions of dangerous gases at refineries—the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality has greeted such news with a shrug, and usually condones such occurrences as unavoidable.

Many of these occurrences, however, are indeed avoidable with appropriate systems in place.

As I write this thousands, and perhaps millions, of human beings are facing potentially serious health risks in Japan as radiation escapes from its failing nuclear power plant. Some of these risks might have been avoided if a more robust backup power system had been in place prior to the earthquake and tsunami.

It is incumbent on us learn from this disaster so we can do a better job of protecting people from industrial disasters in the future.

Steve Jones, the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s watershed protection program attorney, can be contacted at steve@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org or 307-332-7031 x12.

West Edge