Hartsville Nuclear Power Plant differs from Japan's, but concerns remain the same

Fear of a nuclear meltdown in Japan, prompted us to think about the nuclear power plant in our own backyard.

The H.B. Robinson Plant is located in the City of Hartsville in Darlington County. It is owned and operated by Progress Energy.

Andy Cole, a spokesman for the plant, says Japan's Fukushima Power Plant is a different type of plant than H.B. Robinson. He says Fukushima is a boiling water reactor, while Robinson is a pressurized water reactor. He says Robinson's reactors are easier to cool because the water heating and cooling the core doesn't come into direct contact with the reactors.

"A pressurized water reactor has two primary water systems. One that cools the reactor and another that feeds the steam to the turbine to create electricity. So the steam that's generating electricity is not subject to the radiation," Cole explained.

Japan's Fukushima plant successfully withstood the 8.9 magnitude earthquake. The system shut down as planned and a diesel powered generator kicked on to cool the plant's reactors. But, what the plant didn't plan for was the wall of water that struck after the earthquake, knocking out the generator power.

That loss of main power to Fukushima caused two chemical explosions over the past few days. Water trying to cool the plant's reactors from overheating released hydrogen from the main core. That hydrogen ignited, sending flames into the air. Between the two explosions, at least 15 people have been injured.

People have been evacuated from a 13 mile radius around the Fukushima plant.

Philip Fulmer has twenty years experience in the nuclear industry and teaches nuclear engineering at Francis Marion University in Florence County. We asked him about the handling of the situation in Japan.

He said, "The public impact has been somewhat under control. Already evacuations were done well ahead of any releases that would compromise the public health and so the main issues are the engineering issues of getting the reactors back under control."

Fulmer said the situation at the Fukushima plant is the worst possible scenario for any plant.

Worst case scenarios are what nuclear power plants, like H.B. Robinson, prepare for. H.B. Robinson, like Fukushima, is near a fault line and at risk for impact from an earthquake.

"The potential for an earthquake is there. The plant is designed to meet any kind of threat from an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, floods and things like that," Cole said.

Professor Fulmer said when incidents happen at nuclear power plants, keep in mind the people managing them also live in the danger zone. So they're making carefully planned moves.

"These people are not going about cavalierly being risky in their behavior. They have a vested interest making sure things are handled safely. So, there is a great emphasis around safety around any nuclear facility," Fulmer said.

But those living near the H.B Robinson plant can't help but see what's happening in Japan - and wonder what they would do if the risk of a nuclear meltdown was staring them in the face.

Brooke Murray, 20, and her 18-month-old son live just one mile from the H.B. Robinson plant. She's worried someday she'll face the possibility of an evacuation - or worse - radiation exposure.

"It really does scare me because I think that if something happens to the Progress Energy plant, we would be just wiped out," she said.

Brooke's neighbor, Randall Gregory, echoed her sentiments. "I'm so nervous right now, I don't know what to do - don't know where to go."

And Michael Gainey admitted, he wasn't sure what plans were in place should a nuclear disaster happen in Hartsville. "It can be very dangerous. I'd like to know what actions to take if it did happen."

Every year, all 34,518 residents living within 10 miles of the H.B. Robinson plant get information in the mail from Progress Energy detailing evacuation routes and plans if a disaster unfolded at the facility.

Several times a year the emergency sirens are tested.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control would alert residents if there was a risk of radiation exposure and provide them with potassium iodide tablets.

South Carolina has a stock pile of these tablets to be used in case of radiation exposure. Here you can read a blog from ABC News about why potassium iodide is important. In short, the pills keep radioactive iodide from getting into the thyroid and causing cancer.

Brooke Morgan feels better knowing the pills are available, just in case they're needed, but she's still worried. "It does make me feel better that they have a plan in place, but if some disaster would happen I don't think that anybody would control it."

Public health departments in Florence, Darlington, Hartsville and Chesterfield counties have potassium iodide tablets available for residents, but health officials warn the pills should only be taken if DHEC gives that instruction.

Progress Energy has safety information posted on its web site for residents.

The federal agency responsible for monitoring nuclear power plants in the U.S is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

NewsChannel 15's Tonya Brown contributed to this story.