A rare look inside the Harris Nuclear Plant in Wake County - WNCN: News, Weather

A rare look inside the Harris Nuclear Plant in Wake County

By Wes Hohenstein

It's been more than two months since the earthquake and tsunami crippled Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

The disaster brought up concerns over whether nuclear plants in the U.S. would be prepared for similar disasters.

I got a rare look inside the Harris Nuclear Plant in Wake County and found out if the Triangle would be safe.

It took a background check, layers of security and even an armed guard escort to be allowed into a place called the protected area.

Our first stop was the control room, something that rivals NASA's Mission Control, but NASA doesn't sit behind thick walls that stand 6 feet high.  It's staffed by five operators 24 hours a day and they monitor every system on site and hope they never have to turn the reactor trip switch - a switch that's capable of shutting down the nuclear reactor in less than two seconds.

From there, it was on to nuclear core - a place we couldn't go.  It's protected by a giant airlock, 4 feet of concrete and 1 inch of steel. 

We then moved on to six more feet of steel and concrete. The spent fuel containment building included four separate pools holding the spent fuel rods from the last 25 years. The water is about 100 degrees. There were about 23 feet of water between where I stood and the spent fuel rods, and that amount of water kept my radiation exposure near zero.

It's potentially disastrous radiation exposure at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant that has brought the nuclear industry into the spotlight, but it was tornadoes that devastated much of the U.S. last month. After our tour, I asked the plant Vice President about the tornado outbreak and what they were doing.

"We were prepared for that tornado to come right across the site," said Chris Burton, Vice President of the Harris Nuclear Plant. "If we would have had to, we would have shut the plant down. If we would have had to run our emergency diesels, those were certainly available.  The highest wind gust we saw on site was in the neighborhood of a gust of 50 miles per hour."

The plant was built to sustain winds of 179 miles per hour, which would take us up to an EF4 tornado.

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