A change to “emergency response” has been made at the 50-year-old Point Beach nuclear reactors on Lake Michigan south of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The operators, NextEra Energy Point Beach (NextEra), have turned off the site’s disaster warning sirens.
That’s right, no more wailing sirens to warn of potentially catastrophic radiation releases or spills from the two old reactors. The two reactors, both Westinghouse units, are respectively 51 and 49 years old, well past their designed maximum of 40 years.
The siren system was retired and replaced with what’s called “!PAWS” for Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. NextEra says on its website, “The emergency alert system will broadcast official information on local radio stations. Alerts will be sent to your cellphone. If you have functional needs or do not own a cellphone, contact your emergency management agency to be registered for notification and assistance.” So the system sends disaster warnings only radios and cell phones. Are yours always on?
Sixteen years ago, federal regulators granted the reactors 20-year operating extensions. To add thrills to the reactors’ Golden Years, the regulators in 2011 approved a 17% increase in power output from both units. The NRC’s actions are like dear old gramps stomping on the gas, gunning the engine of his jalopy, and racing down main street with the whole family involuntarily along for the ride.
Without sirens to wake sleeping nearby populations in the event of an overnight reactor disaster, potential victims can pretend that reactor accidents only happen in daytime.
In fact a quick search reveals: the 1957 Windscale radiation disaster, the worst in UK history, had 11 tons of uranium burn in secret for three consecutive nights; the Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania reactor meltdown in 1979 started at 4:00 a.m.; the 1979 Churchrock, New Mexico uranium waste spill broke at 5:30 a.m.; and the 1986 Chernobyl explosions and meltdown began at 1:23 a.m.
Michael Keegan of Don’t Waste Michigan has been a close watchdog of Point Beach and the other reactors on the Great Lakes. He noted in an email, “I sure hope everyone has their TV, radio, computer or cell phone on in the middle of the night when the [!PAWS] alarm is sounded — if they can afford them.”
Germany’s recent and deadly flooding event is a tragic example of how the lack of siren systems can be catastrophic, with 210 fatalities and almost 150 people missing as of July 25.
Sirens in some towns failed when the electricity grid crashed, and elsewhere there were no sirens at all, the LA Times reported July 24 (“Residents of flood-stricken German towns say they got inadequate warning of deluge”). The German daily Badische Neueste Nachrichten reported Aug. 6, that sirens had been removed in many places or weren’t working. There had been some 80,000 sirens across Germany when the Cold War ended, but in 2015, Germany’s Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance said only 15,000 still existed, Rolland Peters reported for N-TV.de July 9. The federal government handed responsibility over sirens to local communities in the early 1990s. Thousands of municipalities, many in the flooded areas, then halted regular maintenance of sirens or removed them in cost-cutting steps.
Emergency preparedness and disaster response have always been the bane of nuclear reactors — the only industrial systems that are required to have evacuation plans. Some sites such as Seabrook in New Hampshire are incapable of a mass evacuation and should never have licensed to operate. Taking down warning siren systems only increases the likelihood of catastrophe. It amounts to reckless endangerment.