Nuclear industry, regulators maintain cozy relationship.
(when will we learn)
By JEFF DONN
The Associated Press
LACEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. | Federal regulators have worked closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards or failing to enforce them, The Associated Press has found.
Time after time, officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.
The result? Rising fears that these accommodations by the NRC are undermining safety and inching the reactors closer to an accident.
Examples abound. When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised.
Failed cables, busted seals, broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered.
Not one official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and safety impact of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.
Industry and government officials defend their actions.
“I see an effort on the part of this agency to always make sure that we’re doing the right things for safety. I’m not sure that I see a pattern of staff simply doing things because there’s an interest to reduce requirements — that’s certainly not the case,” NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko said in an interview at agency headquarters in Rockville, Md.
But the yearlong AP investigation found that, with billions of dollars and 19 percent of America’s electricity supply at stake, a cozy relationship prevails between the industry and its regulator.
Records show a pattern. Reactor parts or systems fall out of compliance. Studies are conducted by the industry and government, and all agree that existing standards are “unnecessarily conservative.” Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance.
“That’s what they say for everything, whether that’s the case or not,” said Demetrios Basdekas, an engineer retired from the NRC.
The ongoing crisis at the stricken, decades-old Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility in Japan has focused attention on the safety of plants, prompting an NRC report on U.S. reactors that is due in July.
Reactors in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska have come under scrutiny for their ability to handle earthquakes, tornadoes and flooding.
The Wolf Creek reactor 100 miles west of Kansas City recently received poor marks for its tornado preparedness plan.
Flooding has kept the Fort Calhoun plant 20 miles north of Omaha shut down since a scheduled refueling in April. And the Cooper Nuclear Station 70 miles south of Omaha issued a flooding alert Sunday.
The Callaway plant near Fulton, Mo., was ranked by one review as least likely among all the nation’s reactors to suffer earthquake damage.
But the factor of aging goes far beyond the issues posed by potential disasters.
Commercial nuclear reactors in the United States were designed and licensed for 40 years. When the first ones were being built in the 1960s and 1970s, it was expected they would be replaced with improved models long before the licenses expired.
Instead, 66 of the 104 operating units have been relicensed for 20 more years, mostly with scant public attention. Renewal applications are under review for 16 other reactors.
Wolf Creek, originally licensed in 1985, has been renewed through 2045. The Nebraska reactors, first licensed in the 1970s, are relicensed into the 2030s.
Callaway operates under its original 1984 license that won’t expire until 2024.
The AP’s report did not mention any of the four plants in the region.
A statement from Callaway operator Ameren Corp. said it proactively inspected, assessed, updated and replaced equipment. It has, for example, replaced 70,000 condenser tubes in 2004, all four steam generators in 2005 and its underground piping in 2008 and 2009, for which it received a Top Industry Practices award from the Nuclear Energy Institute. Also, a project to replace the reactor vessel head, or lid, is under way.
The Nebraska Public Power District, which operates the Cooper facility, has invested more in the plant in the last five years that it cost to build originally, a statement from the district said. It also said the plant’s operations are reviewed by the Institute of Power Operations, other nuclear utilities and self-regulating bodies independent of the NRC. Its recent license renewal included a safety review by an independent group that advises the NRC.
Spokespeople for Wolf Creek and Fort Calhoun declined to comment specifically on the AP report.
The AP found that aging reactors have been allowed to run less safely to prolong operations.
Last year, for example, the NRC weakened the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage to reactor vessels — for a second time. The standard is based on a measurement known as a reactor vessel’s “reference temperature,” which predicts when it will become brittle and vulnerable to failure. Over the years, many plants have violated or come close to violating the standard.
As a result, the minimum standard was relaxed first by raising the reference temperature 50 percent, then 78 percent.
“We’ve seen the pattern,” said nuclear safety scientist Dana Powers, who works for Sandia National Laboratories and sits on an NRC advisory committee. “They’re … trying to get more and more out of these plants.”
Neil Wilmshurst, director of plant technology for the industry’s Electric Power Research Institute, acknowledged that the industry and NRC often collaborated on research that supported rule changes. But he maintained that there was “no kind of misplaced alliance ... to get the right answer.”
And former NRC commissioner Peter Lyons said: “There certainly is plenty of research … to support a relaxation of the ‘conservativisms’ that had been built in before. I don’t see that as decreasing safety. I see that as an appropriate standard.”
Though some parts are too big and too expensive to replace, industry defenders also point out that many others are routinely replaced.
Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute, acknowledges that you’d expect to see a growing failure rate at some point — “if we didn’t replace and do consistent maintenance.”
Supporters of aging plants say an old reactor is essentially a collection of new parts.
“When a plant gets to be 40 years old, about the only thing that’s 40 years old is the ink on the license,” said NRC chief spokesman Eliot Brenner. “Most if not all of the major components will have been changed out.”
Yet agency staff, plant operators and consultants paint a different picture in reports, where evidence of industrywide problems is striking.
For example, the 39-year-old Palisades reactor in Michigan shut down Jan. 22 when an electrical cable failed, a fuse blew and a valve stuck shut, expelling steam with low levels of radioactive tritium.
One 2008 NRC report blamed 70 percent of potentially serious safety problems on “degraded conditions.” Some involve human factors, but many stem from equipment wear, including cracked nozzles, loose paint, electrical problems or offline cooling components.
Postponed inspections inside a steam generator at Indian Point, 25 miles north of New York, allowed tubing to burst, leading to a radioactive release in 2000.
Two years later, cracking was allowed to grow so bad in nozzles on the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio, that it came within two months of a possible breach, the NRC acknowledged in a report. A hole in the vessel could release radiation into the environment, yet inspections failed to catch the same problem on the replacement vessel head until more nozzles were found to be cracked last year.
In an effort to meet safety standards, aging reactors have been forced to come up with backfit on top of backfit.
As Ivan Selin, a retired NRC chairman, put it: “It’s as if we were all driving Model T’s today and trying to bring them up to current mileage standards.”
The Star’s Mark Davis contributed to this report.
Read more: http://www.kansascity.com/2011/06/20/2963616/nuclear-industry-regulators-work.html#ixzz1QuyCLz00