|Other | Article published
Sunday, August 18, 2002|
rebound of nuclear industry
By TOM HENRY
OAK HARBOR, Ohio - FirstEnergy Corp.’s failure
to stop acid from chewing steel off part of its Davis-Besse reactor
head has refocused the nation’s eyes on one of the most basic and
fundamental issues of nuclear power: Human error.
just a rust problem that reinvigorated the juices of anti-nuclear
activists, Davis-Besse’s corrosion has raised new questions about
how much vigor is in place for meeting safety
The result has been the opening of a Pandora’s
box at a critical juncture, not only for the nuclear industry but
for the country.
America’s insatiable appetite for energy is
growing. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration
figures, America’s electricity consumption rose 23.5 percent during
the 1990s. The agency figures the demand will increase from 1.8
percent to 2.5 percent for each of the next 20 years, requiring 50
percent to 70 percent more electricity on the nation’s grid over the
next two decades.
Nuclear energy is poised to be a big part
of that picture.
Ten of the existing 103 plants have been
granted 20-year extensions to their licenses; reviews are pending
for more than a dozen others.
Twenty-seven other applications
are expected to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
within the next six years, including one from Davis-Besse. Those
figures come from the industry’s Washington-based trade group, the
Nuclear Energy Institute, which predicts that virtually all of
today’s nuclear plants will end up seeking a license extension
Many plants are boosting their power output along
the way. And, according to the institute, optimism for a new
generation of plants is the highest it’s been since a 23-year
stagnation began after the Three Mile Island accident of 1979 and
huge cost overruns that preceded that watershed event.
is no doubt that the fortunes of nuclear energy in the United States
are and have been on the upswing. Every time we think things can’t
get much better, they do," Joe F. Colvin, institute president and
chief executive officer, beamed during a June 10th speech in
Skeptics question Mr. Colvin’s flowery rhetoric, yet
there is ample reason for the industry’s bright outlook:
For the first time in years, nuclear power has staunch support
from the White House. Expanded nuclear power is a cornerstone of the
Bush-Cheney national energy policy. President Bush’s budget requests
$38.7 million to help start a U.S. Department of Energy initiative
calling for construction of more nuclear plants to start by
The industry’s biggest obstacle, where to bury spent reactor
fuel, moved significantly closer to resolution during the summer
when Congress designated Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the disposal
site. President Bush has signed the bill, something former President
Clinton vowed he never would do while in office and something former
Vice President Al Gore vowed he would never do if elected
The construction process has been made easier, in hopes of
making a nuclear plant’s billion-dollar-or-more price tag more
attractive to Wall Street. The NRC has approved three types of
standardized designs and is considering others, thereby reducing the
cumbersome task of reviewing each on a case-by-case basis. Serious
thought is being given to combining construction and operating
permits, too - all of which could shave three or more years off a
review process that can take eight years or longer.
The 1957 Price-Anderson Act, a bill that caps the accident
liability for any one nuclear plant at $9.3 billion, was
re-authorized by Congress last spring. Without it, the 45-year-old
act would have expired this month and left the industry in a
quandary over how much financial risk it would face in the event of
Global warming has given the nuclear industry a new avenue for
promoting itself, especially with Mr. Bush trying to deflect
criticism about his opposition to the Kyoto agreement that calls for
massive reductions in greenhouse gases by the United States and
other countries. Many of those gases come from coal-fired electrical
plants, factories, and automobile exhaust. Nuclear plants have one
major advantage over coal plants in that they do not emit greenhouse
gases, although the radioactive waste generated by nuclear plants
poses long-term disposal
During the same speech in
which Mr. Colvin extolled the advantages of nuclear energy - a
follow-up to a similar one he delivered at a symposium in Japan last
spring - the Nuclear Energy Institute chief offered words of
"Without our collective, underlying commitment to
safety, the promise of nuclear energy for future generations around
the world will evaporate before our eyes."
Similar views have
been expressed in speeches by NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, who next
month is to be a keynote speaker at a three-day event in Washington
called "The Nuclear Renaissance."
Although the NRC’s national
focus has been on terrorism threats since Sept. 11, Mr. Meserve told
a group in Florida in May that some basic safety issues have
emerged, using the phrase "as we have recently seen at Davis-Besse,"
to help drive home the point.
While few people suggest that
Davis-Besse’s woes are big enough to shut down the nuclear industry,
there is almost unanimous agreement that the corrosion at the Ottawa
County plant - 25 miles east of Toledo - has made officials step
back and take a closer look at what they’re doing.
NRC’s own admission, the government agency was stunned by
Davis-Besse’s corrosion because of the belief that inspection
programs were strong enough to head off that kind of a
The agency’s own Office of Inspector General has
told The Blade it plans to determine whether the surprise discovery
of corrosion at Davis-Besse is symptomatic of a regulatory breakdown
within the NRC that needs to be addressed.
what the Inspector General decides, changes are
Consider an announcement in June by Bill Bateman,
chief of the materials and engineering branch of the NRC’s Office of
Nuclear Reactor Regulation.
Frustrated and embarrassed by
what had been found at Davis-Besse, Mr. Bateman said he was ordering
his staff to draw up a nationwide bulletin for all nuclear plants,
warning utilities to start doing a better job of inspecting their
reactor heads or face the wrath of the NRC.
"If you’re going
to wait for the regulator to come around, you’ll be caught between a
rock and a hard place," the message warns.
after learning about Davis-Besse’s problems, apparently knew better
than to sit back and wait for regulators to come around.
June, Dominion Energy’s board of directors voted to swap out all
four reactor heads at the utility’s Surry and North Anna nuclear
complexes in Virginia. Those multimillion-dollar replacement
projects are to occur in 2004 and 2005, when new heads are ready,
Richard Zuercher, Dominion spokesman, said.
"I think it
[Davis-Besse’s corrosion] has raised everybody’s awareness that
these kind of things need to be examined closely. You can’t be
complacent. You can’t just say that happened at Davis-Besse, that
it’s not our problem," he said.
also questions how things got so far out of hand at Davis-Besse. But
Entergy spokesman Carl Crawford is one of many pro-nuclear officials
who recite a common thesis: That Davis-Besse should be a wake-up
call, not an indictment of nuclear power.
industry was rather surprised and taken aback by the problems at
Davis-Besse. Now, we’ve pretty much come to view it as an isolated
incident," he said.
That’s the theme the Nuclear Energy
Institute is pushing, too, as it moves forward with its sales pitch
for expanding nuclear power.
FirstEnergy doesn’t want to give
the industry a black eye.
Richard Wilkins, company spokesman,
said last week the corrosion issue is "unique to Davis-Besse" and
agreed the plant’s woes can be attributed to a series of
short-sighted management decisions that have occurred over its
"This will be a defining moment for this
plant," Mr. Wilkins said. "We’re turning it upside down. We will
have to earn the right to restart and run this
Davis-Besse began operation in April, 1977. Its
40-year license is due to expire in 2017 - but FirstEnergy has
announced plans to apply for a 20-year
The possibility that
Davis-Besse had America’s most-corroded reactor head was so far off
the radar screen that nobody was even looking for rust when workers
entered the plant’s containment building in early March, NRC
officials have said.
Davis-Besse had impressed the NRC with
several prior inspections leading up to the most recent outage,
which started Feb. 16 with the intent of refueling the plant, doing
routine maintenance, and checking for an emerging wear-and-tear
issue - hairline cracks in long, metal tubes known as control rod
drive mechanism nozzles.
Sixty-nine such nozzles pass through
a reactor head. The tubes serve as passageways for the boron-filled
control rods that operators plunge into a reactor to absorb neutrons
and shut down the nuclear reaction.
Cracks in those
reactor-head nozzles, an issue that many aging plants are
encountering, are often so tiny they cannot be detected without
The NRC’s anxiety about them became
magnified on a national level in February, 2001, when Duke Energy
Corp.’s Oconee Unit 3 plant in South Carolina became the first to
have nozzles that developed circular-shaped, horizontal flaws. Those
are especially dangerous because they can weaken reactor-head
nozzles so much the tubes can end up shooting into the air like
champagne corks, officials have said.
Such a thing could
result in a worst-case scenario: A reactor-head hole can allow
radioactive steam to fill up a nuclear plant’s containment building
and put it - the public’s last line of defense - under enormous
But given Davis-Besse’s enormous rust problem, the
NRC’s attention was diverted away from a search for tiny nozzle
Little was said in June when FirstEnergy acknowledged
at an NRC meeting that lab tests revealed a total of nine cracks in
Davis-Besse’s nozzles - not five, as originally announced. One of
those nine cracks was circumferential, officials said.
then, the NRC was focused on a much more basic and fundamental
problem: The human error that had allowed Davis-Besse’s rust problem
to get out of hand.
The nozzles that
house control rod drive mechanisms were once thought to be
impervious. But in 1989, at the Bugey Unit 3 nuclear plant in
France, the world’s first known cracking of them was
The nozzle cracks in France "obviously showed the
potential" existed at other nuclear plants throughout the world,
according to Dr. Edwin M. Hackett, assistant chief of the NRC’s
material engineering branch.
France has been more pro-active
in dealing with the problem. Its government-owned utility,
Electricite de France, has decided to replace that nation’s reactor
heads instead of waiting for boric acid to escape from the reactor
and chew steel off the reactor cap, as it did at
It’s an incredibly expensive proposition. New
reactor heads can each cost $20 million to $50 million when
engineering and all other costs are included, according to industry
The propensity for nuclear plants having nozzle
leakage is one of the serious wear-and-tear issues that prompted
utilities to pool together resources and hire the Electric Power
Research Institute of Palo Alto, Calif., to develop an initiative
called the materials reliability program in 1998.
engineering program tackles issues related to plant aging that are
common throughout the industry. The goal was to provide research
that will help keep existing nuclear plants up to snuff as their
owners make a case for extending operating licenses, said Chuck
Welty, technology applications director for the California
"We try to follow things close enough so we
understand the plants that are aging," he said.
Davis-Besse’s corrosion largely the result of FirstEnergy’s failure
to do that - the human error of overlooking warning
"That’s correct," he said. "That’s what it suggests.
We’re trying to avoid having that happen
Alex Marion, engineering
director for the Nuclear Energy Institute, acknowledged in an
interview with The Blade that Davis-Besse’s rust is a new chapter
for the industry, a follow-up to the nozzle-cracking issue that
started in France in the early 1990s.
But the engineer used
caution in explaining possible ramifications.
20/20," Mr. Marion said. "It appears, at this point, the Davis-Besse
situation was an isolated situation, because none of the other
plants have had similar corrosion."
Indeed, one of the first
things the NRC did after learning about Davis-Besse’s problem was to
issue a bulletin alerting all nuclear plants in the country to be on
the lookout for reactor-head corrosion and demanding that those with
pressurized water reactors - the same type as Davis-Besse -
immediately turn over their latest inspection records.
NRC’s consensus after weeks of review: Bits of minor corrosion exist
elsewhere, but clearly no reactor head has been as badly damaged as
"Davis-Besse’s problems may have been one of
implementation," Mr. Marion said.
According to documents
reviewed by The Blade, the utility had drafted work orders several
years ago to improve visual access through inspection ports near the
reactor head known as "mouse holes." But the proposed modifications
were canceled by management, apparently because of the $250,000
Although the nuclear
industry doesn’t want Davis-Besse to slow down its momentum, serious
questions about nuclear power have been raised by people other than
In an opinion piece published by
several major newspapers, including The Blade, former NRC
Commissioner Victor Glinsky accused the agency of downplaying
Davis-Besse’s problems and not being immediately forthcoming about
"If the reactor had gone back into operation - as
it very nearly did - the consequences could have been enormous in
terms of public safety as well as the future of the nuclear
industry," Mr. Glinsky wrote. "All in all, what happened at
Davis-Besse was a narrow escape."
Yet in this post-Sept. 11
era that is marked by roller-coaster stocks, business failures, and
anxiety over investor confidence on Wall Street, there appears to be
many other factors influencing the future of America’s nuclear
industry than the rust problems of one nuclear plant 25 miles east
Some people question whether nuclear is poised for
a renaissance from a dollars-and-cents point of view, given the huge
up-front investment that is required.
"We would like to see a
new generation of nuclear plants become a reality, but the fact of
the matter is there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved
before anyone’s going to risk capital on a nuclear plant," Richard
Zuercher of Dominion said.
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