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Other | Article published Sunday, August 18, 2002
Error jolts rebound of nuclear industry

By TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER


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.

More than 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 obligations.

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 someday.

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.

"There 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 Florida.

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 2010.

  • 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 president.

  • 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 a disaster.

  • 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 issues.

    ---------------

    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 caution:

    "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.

    By the 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 problem.

    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.

    But regardless what the Inspector General decides, changes are coming.

    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.

    Several utilities, after learning about Davis-Besse’s problems, apparently knew better than to sit back and wait for regulators to come around.

    In 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.

    Mississippi-based Entergy 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.

    "The entire 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 25-year history.

    "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 plant."

    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 extension.

    ---------------

    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 ultrasonic tests.

    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 pressure.

    But given Davis-Besse’s enormous rust problem, the NRC’s attention was diverted away from a search for tiny nozzle cracks.

    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.

    By 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 discovered.

    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 Davis-Besse.

    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 estimates.

    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.

    The 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 institute.

    "We try to follow things close enough so we understand the plants that are aging," he said.

    Was Davis-Besse’s corrosion largely the result of FirstEnergy’s failure to do that - the human error of overlooking warning signs?

    "That’s correct," he said. "That’s what it suggests. We’re trying to avoid having that happen again."

    ---------------

    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.

    "Hindsight is 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.

    The 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.

    "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 price tag.

    ---------------

    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 anti-nuclear activists.

    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 the risks.

    "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 of Toledo.

    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.


    More articles on this subject
    Safety slipped in 1990s, NRC told 08/16/2002
    Workers start to slice into Davis-Besse’s shell 08/14/2002
    NRC finds 11 violations at Davis-Besse 08/13/2002
    FirstEnergy scrubs deal to sell Bay Shore plant 08/09/2002
    Davis-Besse plant manager replaced without comment after 7 months on job 08/08/2002

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