Many of our friends have been urgently sending us warnings of an impending nuclear catastrophe unfolding in the mountains of East Tennessee. We have been watching the situation but it is almost more interesting to watch the watchers because their overreaching reaction has many tendrils in pop culture, prepping, panic, and how we get our news in the internet age.
Not so long ago news travelled very slowly. In 1845 it took President Polk six months to get a message to California. Thanks to the Pony Express, details of Lincoln's inaugural address covered the distance between the end of the telegraph line at Fort Kearny and Sacramento in seven days, 17 hours. Lag time like that made a significant difference in events because it offered more time to ponder risks and consequences. Mail lag even had a role in keeping California out of the War of Northern Aggression.
Today we hear a beep from our phone and glance down to see what a Facebook or Twitter friend on the other side of the planet is laughing about. We can glance at our tablet to see development of a superstorm in the Bering Strait as viewed from a weather satellite. If we want to get the lowdown on something not in our news stream, we google it, fully aware that Google is filtering our results based on our particular confirmation bias.
Newspapers and the big broadcast news channels are so slow, bland, geriatric and clueless that it is no wonder their business model is circling the toilet bowl of communications history.
But at the edges of the new media map there be dragons. We cocoon within psychographic cabals of those who share our views, seldom venturing out to listen to those who disagree. Social rifts are widening. In the last US election, as earlier in Australia, Canada and the UK, conservative media trounced liberal media. That was no accident. Elections were purchased by Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and consortia of K-street lobbyists funded by repatriating Citizens United petrodollars from Riyadh and Beijing.
So, naturally, when we read something in the press about a pending man-made disaster, we have to wonder. Whose ax is being ground here?
According to the Tennessee Valley Authority's news release, published in Hydroworld on November 5th:
During dam inspection Oct. 20, engineers at the South Fork Holston River facility [Boone Lake Dam] became aware of a sinkhole at the base of the 160-foot-high (49 meters) by 1,532-foot-long (467 meters) structure. The sinkhole was repaired, but on Oct. 26, inspectors discovered seepage near the location of the original sinkhole, underwater in the rip rap rocks – a foundation or sustaining wall of stones or chunks of concrete used as armor – near the shoreline. TVA said the seepage included “a small amount of water and sediment seeping from the riverbank below the dam.”
The Appalachian Mountains have a karst terrain that is especially susceptible to sinkholes. This region is also the high ground in the TVA system of 29 hydroelectric dams and pumped-storage. In karst domains – underlain with carbonate bedrock such as limestone or dolomite rainwater percolating though organic soil becomes slightly acidic and slowly dissolves the bedrock. Over time, it creates extensive systems of underground fissures and caves. East Tennessee is pocked with chains of sinkholes, or solution valleys, where streams mysteriously disappear underground.
After discovering the leak below Boone Lake Dam, TVA immediately began a drawdown to lower levels of the lake so it could better examine the problem. Sinkholes are not uncommon and TVA has had to deal with them before. It dealt with a similar hole at Bear Creek, Alabama in 2007 by backfilling with concrete, but the leak discovered in October has been termed "an uncommon occurrence" because of both its size and location.
TVA will be bringing down the water level about 20 feet to the necessary mark of 1,362 feet (elevation), the “winter pool” level. The rate at which the TVA can drop the lake maxes out at 2 feet per day and it expects to have the drawdown done by November 10. Jennifer Dodd, a TVA dam safety officer said it could turn out that the cause of the sinkhole and seepage is a broken pipe or drain, but they won’t know until the water’s low enough.
TVA normally lowers its lakes and reservoirs in winter to provide better flood control above cities like Chattanooga. TVA can store about 5 million acre-feet of water during the winter flood season to protect that city from extreme storms, something we may see more of in the future unless Chairman Inhofe puts in a good word with God. Chattanooga's river storage capacity can and has been used to reduce flood crests on the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois by as much as 3 feet.
All this is very reassuring until one digs a little more. Boone Lake is a V-shaped reservoir that extends for 17 miles up the South Fork Holston and for 15 miles up the Watauga. When it was filled for the first time it submerged 154 homes, 104 graves and 18 miles of roads. It holds 25 billion gallons of water. Although the dam is more than half the length of a football field tall, when full the water behind the dam is 35 yards above the normal level of the river below.
If the dam were to suddenly break, that 100-foot high wall of water would gradually diminish in height over distance. It would almost certainly sweep away the state highway bridge only a mile downstream and most likely would overflow and demolish other cross-river structures between Kingsport and Chattanooga.
|The Army Ammo Dump is one of 9 Superfund sites near the river.|
Kingsport would be hardest hit, because it is close to Boone Lake and has lots of vulnerable low-lying riverside infrastructure such as natural gas, oil storage depots and sewage treatment plants. There is plenty of new, high-priced development along the river shore below Kingsport, and some schools and prisons, too.
|Eastman Chemical is the largest toxic waste Superfund site in Kingsport|
Fifty miles below Knoxville stands the Fort Loudon Dam, another monument to wartime Corps of Engineers speed records for dam construction (just 12 months from start to finish). Ft Loudon holds back another 36 billion gallons, not including the channel that brings in overflow from the Tellico Dam. If Ft Loudon is destroyed or even overtopped by the wall of inrushing water, its waters dump into those of Watts Bar Lake, just below and contiguous.
|Watts Bar is named for a large sandbar in the Tennessee River|
This secret NRC internal report, performed after Fukushima by the agency's nuclear reactor safety division and labeled "Not for Public Release," describes what happens when such a wall of water arrives from Watts Bar Lake to Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, north of Chattanooga. It begins by describing the scenario for another facility, Duke Power's Oconee Nuclear Station, should the dam at Jocassee fail:
"Studies that are more recent have also computed flood heights that exceed the flood protection elevation of the Standby Shutdown Facility (Duke 2009, Duke 2010). The following timeline (which begins with dam failure) is an excerpt from a Duke letter, which is based on results of the 1992 study:
Notification from Jocassee would occur before a total failure of the dam; however, for purposes of this timeline, notification is assumed to be at the same time the dam fails. Following notification from Jocassee, the reactor(s) are shutdown within approximately 1 hour. The predicted flood would reach [Oconee Nuclear Station] in approximately 5 hours, at which time the [Standby Shutdown Facility] walls are overtopped. The [Standby Shutdown Facility] is assumed to fail, with no time delay, following the flood level exceeding the height of the [Standby Shutdown Facility] wall. The failure scenario results are predicted such that core damage occurs in about 8 to 9 hours following the dam break and containment failure in about 59 to 68 hours. When containment failure occurs, significant dose to the public would result. (Duke 2008, att 2, p.10)
The above timeline assumes that Oconee Nuclear Station is notified at the same time the dam fails. The licensee considers this assumption to be conservative because the plant expects notification before the dam fails (the dam is monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). The licensee notes that the above timeline does not account for the recession of floodwaters, which is postulated to occur 10 hours following dam failure (5 hours following onset of flooding at the site) (Duke 2008, att 2, p.10).
There are 12 major dams upstream from Watts Bar Nuclear Plant (the locations of six of these dams are shown in Figure 10). As indicated above, Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is located less than 2 miles from Watts Bar Dam. The remaining 11 dams are located at further distances. In the plant UFSARs, seismically-induced dam failure is considered under the operating basis earthquake coincident with one-half the PMF [presumed maximum flood] as well as during a safe-shutdown earthquake coincident with a 25-year storm. … Under this event, the West Saddle Dike at Watts Bar Dam would be overtopped and breached (WBNP 2010, p. 2.4-38, WBNP n.d., p. 2.4-31). The licensee provides results that indicate arbitrary removal of Watts Bar Dam during a 25-year flood would result in a flood elevation of 723 ft MSL (5 ft below plant grade).
In light of the concern about potentially high flood levels at Oconee Nuclear Station resulting from the failure of Jocassee Dam, it may be reasonable to understand the consequences of high flood events at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant resulting from failure of Watts Bar Dam and other upstream dams during an extreme precipitation event. Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is flood protected up to an elevation of 728ft and requires plant shutdown for flood elevations above this level. Given the close proximity of Watts Bar Dam to the plant site (Figure 11), very little warning time exists between the time of dam breach and the arrival of floodwaters at the site. The safety-related systems and components necessary for the maintenance of safe shutdown are protected up to the aforementioned design-basis flood level, which does not include a dam failure event (other than the West Saddle Dike at Watts Bar Dam).
|Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Chattanooga|
As the Duke study says, "When containment failure occurs, significant dose to the public would result." Chattanooga and Knoxville will be the most directly impacted, but unlike in Japan where most of the fallout blew out to sea, under normal Tennessee conditions the prevailing wind currents will carry Watts Bar and Sequoyah fallout up the western side of the Smoky Mountain National Park, across the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley, and then up the eastern seaboard of the United States, raining down transuranic elements on the people and water supplies of Roanoke, Harrisburg, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, Hartford, Boston and Portland, Maine.
This fate is not set in stone. TVA is prepared for sinkholes and discovered this one in time to excavate and plug it. What the sinkhole in Tennessee revealed, however, is an underlying pattern of deception and corruption. The US Congress has been spending money first to arm and train ISIS and then to arm and train its opposition but has delayed spending money on decaying infrastructure such as roads and bridges. For all we know ISIS is a false flag operation being run by ex-Navy Seals, in which case we would be arming and payrolling both sides. It would not be the first time.
After Fukushima the nation should have followed the lead of other countries and begun retiring nuclear plants, starting with the most vulnerable, and replacing them with cheaper, safer and more reliable renewable sources (carefully avoiding siting large hydro dams in karst terrain). Would that not be better Homeland Security than irradiating the entire population in airports? Instead, in the name of energy independence it relicensed old nuke plants, ignored the warnings of engineers that many are as vulnerable as Fukushima, and also increased the earthquake risks by promoting fracking in the Appalachian shale belt. Madness.
The internal NRC report says:
Like many sites in the U.S. inventory of nuclear power plants, flood levels at these two stations were based on relatively outdated flood estimation methods and/or probable precipitation estimates. The evolution of hydrological modeling — including dam break analysis — and the availability of updated meteorological data are likely to yield flooding estimates that are different than those considered during the initial licensing reviews or IPEEE studies.
What happens almost invariably is that the engineers who write words like these are relieved of their duties and shuffled off to less important work in some dimly lit boiler room office. The administrators to whom the findings are addressed stamp them as "Secret," and make sure they never see the light of day. Some clever whistleblower then posts them to the internet, where they are only read by those whose confirmation bias supports catastrophe by conspiracy.
Daniel Boone, for whom Boone Lake was named, said "I wouldn't give a tinker's damn for a man who isn't sometimes afraid. Fear's the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead.”
Perhaps if Chairman Inhofe can just put in a good word with God we will all be spared the scenarios depicted in these reports. Until then, a quiet fear of Boone will keep it interesting.