Much like the baby boom generation, many of America's 103
operating nuclear power plants are already firmly entrenched in
That's the dreaded period when parts begin wearing out and things
often start to go wrong.
The age-related damage found in March at FirstEnergy's
Davis-Besse nuclear power plant illustrates how the graying of the
nation's nuclear plants is both a safety and an economic
FirstEnergy expects to pay $120 million or more in repairs and
energy-related costs before it can be allowed to restart the Oak
Harbor power plant.
And the Akron company's admission that it should have prevented
the acid corrosion that damaged its reactor vessel head only
intensifies the arguments of those who say nuclear power is
dangerous. Davis-Besse raises the volume of the debate at a time
when many in the industry are seeking permits to extend the life of
Critics of nuclear power say the older the plants get, the less
safe they are, no matter what kind of inspections, maintenance and
equipment replacement goes on.
Nonsense, say the industry and its federal overseer, the U.S.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
There's a lot at stake as nuclear power plants enter the last
half of their initial 40-year licenses to operate.
Nuclear power currently supplies about 20 percent of the nation's
electricity. Despite the protests of nuclear energy opponents, the
uranium-powered reactors are unlikely to shut down any time
That's because demand for electricity is projected to grow for
decades. Energy policy under the Bush administration calls for the
use of nuclear power, though utilities now have no immediate plans
to build any new nuclear plants.
Instead, FirstEnergy and most other plant owners expect to ask
for an additional 20 years to keep existing facilities, including
Davis-Besse, making power.
The NRC ties the application for the 20-year licenses directly to
how well plant operators address aging.
The critics and industry do agree that parts wear out.
Constant bombardment by radiation over the years can cause metal
to become brittle. Temperature fluctuations and high pressure take
their toll on sophisticated systems and equipment such as steam
generators. Concrete cracks.
Even such nontechy things as water or coolant pipes are
susceptible to the ravages of aging.
And the plumbers can charge some pretty hefty fees to make things
Disagreement comes in determining what should be done.
David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who now works for the Union of
Concerned Scientists, says he wants better assurances that nuclear
power plants will become safer as they get older.
The experience with Davis-Besse shows that the industry and
regulators can become complacent and still be surprised by
unexpected events, he said.
Lochbaum testified before the NRC this week, offering a plan that
he says will help regulators know if age-related problems are
``Most plant operations have programs in place to deal with
aging,'' Lochbaum said. ``There was a miss (at Davis-Besse) for some
reason. You can never be infallible.''
The industry has gotten better at plant maintenance after new
rules went into effect in 1996, he said.
But he estimates that from 1997 on, more than half of plant
outages have been caused by age-related problems.
The Union of Concerned Scientists plan calls for the NRC to look
at the reasons it sends special teams to nuclear power plants, he
said. If the teams increasingly are created and sent out because of
age-related issues, the NRC needs to take corrective action, he
``We're thinking there's evidence of more near-misses,'' he said.
``The companies are cutting back on inspections. It costs
Anti-nuclear activist Paul Gunter of the Washington, D.C.-based
Nuclear Information & Resource Service says he doesn't believe
the industry when it says the aging plants will stay safe.
``The plants are going into a breakdown phase,'' he said. ``From
toasters to nuclear power stations, the longer you run them the more
likely they are to fail.''
The fact that FirstEnergy didn't detect boric acid leaks that
created two cavities on top of the Davis-Besse reactor vessel head
shows the problems inherent in keeping nuclear plants safe, Gunter
The Davis-Besse incident and others show that the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission is asleep, he said.
``We have a retreat from regulatory oversight,'' he said.
Increasing energy efficiency using off-the-shelf technology and
programs can make up for the closing of nuclear power plants, he
The industry says its statistics show plants are getting
``I would disagree with (critics') contention that they get less
safe,'' said Charles Welty, director of technology applications for
the utility-funded nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute in
California. ``It's my firm belief that they don't get any less
The industry has vigorous and extensive inspection and
maintenance programs in place to keep plants running safely, he
said. In addition, the plant operators can predict when any
age-related damage will occur and head it off, he said.
``We know these things will age,'' Welty said. ``We can manage
The Davis-Besse reactor vessel head corrosion is an aging problem
that ``just somehow got ahead of them,'' he said. ``It doesn't
appear to be a new damage phenomena.''
``I don't see any real significant issue with aging,'' said Alex
Marion, director of engineering at the industry-sponsored Nuclear
The NRC has already granted 20-year license extensions for eight
plants, which he said shows that the industry is properly addressing
Those licenses don't get granted overnight.
It takes about three years for a company to get ready to submit a
20-year license renewal application, said FirstEnergy spokesman
Richard Wilkins. FirstEnergy is making plans now to apply for a
license extension in December 2004 that will keep the plant running
until 2037. (Davis-Besse's operating license expires in 2017.)
It will take the NRC until 2006 to evaluate the application.
FirstEnergy has accepted responsibility for not preventing the
acid damage at David-Besse and is moving ahead with its repair
plans, Wilkins said.
``We did find that problem. And we found it before anything
failed,'' he said. ``The question is, why didn't we find it
David Baker, the acting director of life-cycle management at
Davis-Besse, said in addition to doing aging-related maintenance and
repairs at the plant, FirstEnergy is planning to make enhancements
in the next couple of years that will increase Davis-Besse's
electricity output by 100 megawatts. The plant, shut down since Feb.
16, generates about 880 megawatts.
The license renewal work involves looking at valves and other
components, and even doing such things as analyzing the soil to
mitigate any possible corrosive properties that could hurt
underground piping, he said.
P.T. Kuo, the new director of license renewal at the NRC, said he
is convinced his agency is properly addressing nuclear plant
The initial 40-year license period was based on economic, not
technological, considerations, he said.
``The track record of the industry suggests that as the industry
as a whole gets older, they're operating more safely,'' said NRC
spokesman Victor Dricks. ``The older plants were built with very
wide safety margins. Aging is understood and managed.''