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Nuke plant in Texas finds leaks in reactor


By John Funk And John Mangels Plain Dealer reporters

An army of experts has converged at a Texas nuclear plant to try to figure out how the improbable happened - leaks, apparently for the first time, in the bottom of the reactor.

A routine inspection a week ago at the South Texas Project reactor near Bay City south of Houston revealed tiny deposits of dried reactor coolant where it shouldn't have been, around two instrument tubes that poke out of the vessel's base.

"We have spent the entire week trying to understand that," said plant general manager Ed Halpin. "Our conclusion is that we had some leakage" from an area where welds attach the instrument tubes to the underside of the giant steel vessel.

Until now no reactor operator has confirmed that a bottom leak exists, although a possible one is under investigation at Ohio's Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo, which is of similar design. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is closely tracking both situations.

The agency wants to quickly determine whether other reactors might be vulnerable to the same problem.

The NRC is concerned that an undetected leak could blow a hole in the reactor's bottom. If it were large enough, it could theoretically overwhelm the plant's emergency systems and cause its radioactive fuel to melt, a disastrous accident.

Until the NRC knows more, it would be premature for the agency to request information or order inspections at the nation's other 68 nuclear plants of the same type, said Brian Sheron, associate director for project licensing.

"I'm not worried that some plant is likely to have a lower penetration [instrument tube] blow off tomorrow," Sheron said. But, he said, "we can't wait forever" to ask other reactors to begin checking for similar leaks.

The NRC does not require inspections of the reactor bottom because leaks had not been thought to occur there, where heat and stress are relatively low.

South Texas voluntarily inspects the bases of its two reactors at least every 18 months during refueling shutdowns, Halpin said. The second reactor has shown no sign of leaks.

At Davis-Besse, workers last summer found traces of dried coolant on the reactor's side and underbelly.

The plant's owner, FirstEnergy Corp., believes the residue washed down from the reactor's top during cleaning rather than leaking from the bottom. Since lab tests were inconclusive, the company will bring the idled reactor up to operating conditions in May, then use a robotic camera to check for leaks.

At South Texas, engineers from five commercial power companies, technical experts from nuclear industry organizations, and contractors hired by the utility are on site. They are working to pin down the cracks' location and characteristics and devise a repair plan.

Halpin expects to know more next week. "We're not in any rush," he said. "We're committed to safely and methodically working through this issue. It needs to be done right."

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To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:, 216-999-4138, 216-999-4842

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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