Nuclear response team based in the valley
PHOENIX (KSAZ) - Five-years-ago, an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan killing close to 16,000 and leaving many more injured or missing.
It was the costliest natural disaster in world history and caused the second worst nuclear power disaster on record. The lessons learned from that accident are quietly playing out just miles from downtown Phoenix.
A massive and secret building loaded with emergency nuclear equipment sits in the valley, ready to go at a moments notice. It's all a plan hatched after the Japan quake.
No one in the nuclear field saw it coming; it was unimaginable, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The sea wall surrounding the reactor was built 32 feet high, but the wave produced by the tsunami crested at 42 feet. The massive amount of water wiped out generators resulting in a loss of power and thus three reactors melted down.
"The U.S. nuclear industry said we're gonna learn from this, we're gonna learn to make sure that same event never happens here in the U.S.," said Randy Munday.
Munday is the program manager for SAFER, the Strategic Alliance for Flex Emergency Response. At the warehouse where the equipment is stored you'd have no idea what is going on, except for the military looking sign tucked on the stairway. In the wake of the disaster, leaders in the U.S. developed two SAFER response centers. One is in Memphis, and the other is in Phoenix. Both can respond to a nuclear emergency within a 1,000-mile radius, and get there within a day.
"The National SAFER response center is based on one simple idea, what if," said Munday.
The warehouse is larger than a football field, everything inside can run a crippled power plant in case of an unforeseen emergency like Fukushima.
"If the plant has lost power, we can bring enough power to run emergency equipment," said Munday.
Power is vital to cooling reactor cores and spent fuel rods because a loss of power can result in a nuclear meltdown. The key is getting all the equipment to a crippled plant in time.
"You can see the equipment is on a trailer ready to roll," he said.
In an emergency FedEx would send cabs to pickup the trailers, they're all labeled and color coded, all the paperwork is filled out.
"We already know what to send and where it's going. We can set up a convoy of equipment in and out in minutes," said Munday.
There is everything needed from water pumps, filters, and generators. All of it could be driven to a disaster site or flown in.
"We also designed it to be able to fit through a cargo door of a cargo plane, and light enough it could be lifted by a helicopter," he said.
Between the sites in Phoenix and Memphis the industry spent $70 million for all the equipment. All of it is constantly tested and serviced, to make sure it's ready to go. It's peace of mind for the 60 nuclear plants operating in the United States, including the largest in the nation at Palo Verde.
"Five years later and we feel we are a better plant because of what happened at Fukushima," said Chuck Karrl with Palo Verde.
All of the equipment is at the ready, just in case.
"Hope we never have to use it, but we always want to be prepared every day. Today might be the day we get that call," said Munday.
Some have suggested the equipment would be useful in the case of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Even though safeguarding nuclear plants is SAFER's primary purpose, all the equipment could be summoned in a national emergency.