Cover Story: Nuclear power in the spotlight

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A nuclear crisis.  Japan has a huge mess on its hands. And we've learned, that country is looking to Charlotte to help clean it up.

Japan's damaged nuclear reactor is still a house of cards.  If another earthquake or tsunami strikes, the reactors could fail. More radiation could spew into the air.

It's already the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Japan has to get this mess under control. And, they say, the best team to clean it up is from Charlotte.

How long will the cleanup take?  Officials are looking at ten-year plan for cleanup and to put the area back together again so people can return to their homes.

And a team from Charlotte's energy companies are leading the charge.

From the crisis in Japan to the corner of Trade and Tryon it's more than 7,000 miles.

But it was Charlotte that Japanese officials turned to once they realized they'd lost four of the five reactors at the Fukushima plant.

"The Japanese companies do not have the expertise in decommissioning and decontamination that the U.S. companies do," says nuclear expert Jeff Merrifield.  He has been called up by every major media outlet in the country (70 interviews in the last month) to explain what happened to the nuclear plants in Japan.

Merrifield is a former commissioner with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  He's now employed with The Shaw Group, its nuclear operations are based in Charlotte.

Shaw is one of three companies along with Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox that were specifically chosen by the Japanese to come up with a comprehensive plan on how to shut down the plant, deal with the radioactivity and put the site in safe condition.

"A series of steps will be taken to deal with the water, deal with the reactors, deal with spent fuel and obviously in parallel try to remediate the areas around the site," says Merrifield.  The plan is for it to take ten years.

"I live within a mile and a half as the crow flies.. it doesn't bother me," says Don Carpenter of Huntersville.

In the background of a butterfly garden sits a neighbor to Charlotte that's been here 30 years this year, the McGuire Nuclear Station in Huntersville.

And second nuclear power plant lies to Charlotte's south, the Catawba Nuclear Station.

This week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is releasing its annual findings from inspections the NRC conducted last year at the two facilities.  According to the federal regulatory agency both operated within normal standards.

The Carolinas are home to one of the densest nuclear clusters in the country.  South Carolina has seven nuclear reactors, which is the third most in the U.S.

North Carolina has five nuclear reactors tying the state for fifth most in the country.

Duke Energy's Valerie Patterson says since Japan they've been double-checking everything at their facilities.  She said, "We've been undergoing a lot of evaluation.. recognizing as I mentioned that certainly the final lessons learned from Japan.. and any future changes that may come to our industry are yet to come."

At least three nuclear power plants are in the works to be constructed in the southeast.. that doesn't include a facility Duke Energy is considering in South Carolina in Cherokee county near Gaffney.  Will developments in Japan put a chilling effect on nuclear like Three Mile Island did 32 years ago?  That doesn't appear to be happening so far.

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