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Nuclear industry to apply 'peer pressure' to problems

06/27/03

John Mangels
Plain Dealer Science Writer

The pineapple-size rust hole that workers found in the lid of the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor last year has prompted the nuclear industry to try to improve the way it manages the condition of aging plant equipment.

The industry has adopted a two-year, $12 million plan, to begin in 2004, that emphasizes better communication and coordination among nuclear utilities about materials issues such as corrosion and metal cracking.

The plan sets up two oversight groups that can employ "peer pressure" to make sure everyone is doing appropriate checks and corrective work, and that will attempt to identify potential materials problems before they occur, rather than responding to them afterward.

From the federal government's experience with research reactors in the 1950s and '60s, the nuclear industry has recognized that materials can be vulnerable to unusual effects. Long-term radiation exposure can make steel brittle. The reactor's high operating temperature and pressure, coupled with the force of circulating coolant, can cause stress cracks. The boric acid in reactor coolant can chew up metal.

Groups have formed over the years to address specific materials problems. Some are operated by owners of similarly designed plants, others by equipment vendors, and still others by the nuclear industry's member bodies.

The problems with that approach are tunnel vision and inertia, according to a nuclear industry task force formed in the wake of Davis-Besse to examine the handling of materials issues. The identification of each new problem tends to suck up all the attention, money and research staffing, with no one stepping back to look at broader implications and patterns and setting overall priorities.

"We had no single group with the entire materials picture," Garry Randolph, an executive with the utility that operates Missouri's Callaway nuclear plant and the chairman of the task force, said in a conference call with reporters. "We needed a more integrated approach."

The task force, organized by the industry's trade organization, the Nuclear Energy Institute, also determined the need for a more "forward-looking" way to identify potential future materials problems.

In the last two years, there have been several unexpected findings at U.S. nuclear plants, including circular cracks in the metal nozzles on reactor lids, the aggressive corrosion at Davis-Besse and cracks and leakage on the bottom of the reactor vessel at a Texas plant.

The industry plan, financed with additional fees paid by the utilities, establishes a materials management group and a technical advisory group.

The management body, to be made up of six nuclear executives, will set priorities, coordinate work by the various materials groups, dole out new research money, and collaborate with the industry's research and inspection organizations.

The technical group is responsible for creating a "road map" to identify emerging materials issues, as well as analyzing costs and risks associated with such problems, and monitoring other countries' experience.

One of Davis-Besse's problems was that it wasn't as vigilant as other utilities in dealing with known materials problems, such as corrosion. The endorsement of the new materials plan by all the nation's nuclear utility executives will help ensure that individual plants carry out what the new oversight program recommends, said Alex Marion, NEI's engineering director.

So will the involvement of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the industry's powerful inspection arm, which regularly evaluates plants and shares its findings with all nuclear utilities. INPO's inspection results have an impact on the insurance rates that nuclear plants pay.

The new materials plan "provides a process by which peer pressure can be more effectively exerted," Randolph said.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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