Relicensing puts the Ohio reactor in the cross-hairs of its opponents
This is my updated coverage based on an article published in Fuel Cycle Week V10;N412, April 21, 2011, by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC
And Davis-Besse isn’t just any reactor. It has a troubled history of a major near-miss. The plant is about to flip its reactor pressure vessel lid for the second time.
Relicensing the plant will test the utility’s ability to deal with very determined public opponents who want to to shut the reactor down. Some opponents have unrealistic expectations of how renewable energy sources like solar and wind can power the industrial heartland of Ohio and Indiana, but others see a history of problems that cannot be overcome.
Though the plant has been working hard to meet the NRC’s requirements, even the appearance of a safety violation creates front page headlines in Ohio newspapers. In the world of nuclear safety, with its emphasis on “defense in depth,” any violation gets attention.
According to the newspaper, a technician used a portable radio in a room containing an auxiliary control panel for an emergency cooling system that would be used to pump water into the reactor in the event of a catastrophic accident.
First Energy told the NRC March 3 the radio transmissions interfered with the auxiliary control panel for the emergency cooling system. The plant was not using the emergency cooling system at the time, but the panel is “alive” all the time so that it can be put in service automatically if needed.
A spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Plain Dealer the problem of radio interference with digital control systems has been known "for decades" and that the incident should not have occurred.
The newspaper reported that Victoria Mitlyng, spokeswoman for the NRC's regional office in Chicago, said, "We will definitely be looking into this."
A contentious atmosphere for a few, smooth sailing for others
So far the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has had little trouble relicensing 61 nuclear plants, extending their operational lives another 20 years for their utility owners. But with the events at Fukushima gusting up new winds into the sails of local and national anti-nuclear activists, this may be about to change. NRC has already seen its share of challenges in recent years.
Strident opposition groups have targeted the relicensing of the Entergy-owned and operated Indian Point power plant in New York and the Vermont Yankee plant for years. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) have thrown their support to the opponents, pulling every legal political lever available to them to halt the plants’ relicensing.
In New York Gov. Cuomo has appeared in joint press conferences with Riverkeeper, the anti-nuclear group who’s high profile mission is to close Indian Point. In Vermont, Gov. Shumlin has done everything he can to create an atmosphere of inevitability that the Vermont Yankee plant will close in 2012 even though the NRC renewed its license for another 20 years.
But the case that may roil the water more than any other is the 913 MW Davis-Besse PWR reactor (right) located near Toledo, Ohio. Owner-operator FirstEnergy (NYSE:FE) filed its application with the NRC for license renewal on August 31. The license will expire in 2017.
Ohio political climate mixed
Unlike his counterparts in New York and Vermont, Ohio Gov. John Kaisch (R) not has expressed an opinion on nuclear energy or on relicensing the plant.
But U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Cleveland) sent a letter to NRC last November blasting the plant’s safety record. He says Davis- Besse did not deserve a license extension.
“The NRC . . . should insure that this aging reactor with a deplorable history of operations and maintenance be safely shut down and decommissioned at the end of its current license,” Kucinich wrote, noting also that the plant had a “pathetic record in protecting the safety of people who live in the region.”
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo), whose district includes the Davis-Besse plant, has said in past newspaper interviews as far back as 2002 that she is not convinced of the utility’s ability to safely operate the reactor. She has declined so far to comment on the relicensing process.
Meanwhile, NRC is keeping a close eye on the plant. Within the first quarter of 2011 three NRC audits of environmental impacts and safety inspection have occurred.
Bad apples earned distrust
Public doubts regarding the plant’s safety springs in great part from a series of events beginning in 2002, with the discovery of previously undetected corrosion (right) (photo NRC) that nearly ate through the six-inch thick steel reactor pressure-vessel head. In following up, Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials discovered several other safety issues—and that plant personnel had deliberately withheld important information about them.
In January 2006 FirstEnergy admitted the safety violations by former employees and entered a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, in which the company agreed to pay record fines.
For two years the Davis-Besse plant closed for repairs and upgrades that cost an estimated $600 million, including the replacement of the reactor head with a used one from a similar plant in Michigan.
Last year FirstEnergy investigators found new cracks in control rod drive mechanism nozzles penetrating the reactor vessel closure head. After repairing the control rod drive nozzles the plant went back into service. The NRC, the Department of Energy and FirstEnergy are still analyzing the causes of the failure. The utility ordered a third reactor pressure vessel head from AREVA in France, and its installation will begin later this year.
See this full size image published by the Cleveland Plain Dealer for details.
NRC spokeswoman Victoria Mitlyng told FCW the second head was never expected to be a permanent solution—but it was expected to last until 2014 when the utility planned to replace it with another. Cracks in the nozzles could bring about leaks and uncontrolled releases of radioactivity. This is not uncommon at other reactors as well, said Mitlyng, but frequent and rigorous inspection of them is key in keeping plants safe.
FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider told FCW that the utility had hoped to swap out the reactors heads in 2014 because it was planning to replace the steam generators at that time. NRC spokesman Scott Burnell the Toledo Free Press on March 6, “There is no disagreement that the head corrosion was the most significant challenge to safety we have had since Three Mile Island.”
No standing ovations in Ohio
Plant opponents have not been waiting until 2017, but are now seeking opportunities to press their case. For example, earlier this year an errant portable radio transmission briefly disabled the digital controls of an emergency cooling system. The cooling system was not operating at the time. The incident drew loud protests, however, which catapulted the non-event above the fold on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Activists also claim that the pressure vessel head nozzles failed because the utility runs the reactor at too high a temperature. Kevin Kamps, a spokesman for the Maryland-based Beyond Nuclear, has claimed that Davis-Besse is “the hottest reactor in the country.” The high heat makes more steam, which makes more electricity and thus generates more revenue, he said.
FirstEnegy’s Todd Schneider told FCW that this is no longer the case.
“Historically, Davis-Besse’s reactor head was thought to be a few degrees hotter than similar Babcock & Wilcox units,” said Schneider. “Since then, we’ve learned the temperature of the reactor head depends on the fuel design, which is changed every operating cycle.”
He said that cracks occurred in control rod nozzles at the center of the reactor lid, which is the hottest location. The utility has dropped the temperature below the 600F to prevent future cracking until second lid can be replaced,
Also, utility engineers would reconfigure the reactor’s fuel assemblies to place the newer and hotter ones farther from the center of the reactor to distribute heat more evenly inside the core.
Fear and loathing at the NRC hearing
Opponents to the relicensing packed an NRC hearing held March 2 in Ottawa County, Ohio. Ohio Green Party spokesman Joe DeMare testified that the nearly 900 MW of power from the reactor “can easily be replaced with less-dangerous energy production.”
FirstEnergy was not interested in alternative energy technologies such as solar and wind, said DeMare, which were “being suppressed.”
Patricia Marida, (right) a spokesman for the Sierra Club of Ohio told FCW she does not trust the relicensing process. She said the Atomic Safety Licensing Board in the past had dismissed her group’s contentions “out of hand.”
“They often use technicalities to do so, rather than on the merits of the cases. Legal and rule technicalities, including technically challenging submission requirements, should not stand in the way of the NRC and the ASLB’s responsibility for protecting the public from radioactive contamination and disaster,” said Marida.
FirstEnergy enraged its opponents by challenging the standing of the Ontario-based Citizens Environmental Alliance. Marida said FirstEnergy argued that the group did not meet the ASLB criterion of being located within 50 miles of the plant. But it is only outside that boundary by the distance of less than a football field.
FirstEnergy’s Schneider confirmed that this issue has come up, but said that like all proposed contentions, and requests for standing, it is pending with the ASLB.
NRC’s Mitlyng said that the ASLB has not yet made any decisions on who has standing or what contentions it will admit for the relicensing process. “All groups were heard,” Mitlyng said. “Nobody has been locked out of the process.”
A decision from the Atomic Safety Licensing Board regarding the status of intervenors and their contentions is expected by the end of April.
Plant backers: no drama
FirstEnergy also has a lot of supporters, including business and civic leaders in the communities surrounding the reactor. Ottawa County Commissioner Jere Witt testified at the NRC hearing that he had seen improvements in the utility’s operation of the plant.
“I have no concerns about the safety of Davis-Besse,” he said.
A schedule on NRC’s website indicates that the agency plans to issue a safety evaluation report for the relicensing process by July 2012. That schedule could change if the ASLB admits any of the contentions of those opposing the license extension.
Davis-Besse losing its head in October
Davis-Besse will enter an extraordinary fuel outage in October, during which the brainy FirstEnergy staff will replace the reactor head with a brand new one that has top-level control rod channels, or nozzles. The nozzles are tubes that guide the control rods through the reactor’s lid and into the core.
After inspections last spring revealed new cracking in the nozzles of the reactor’s second lid much earlier than expected by engineers and the NRC the utility determined, and the NRC agreed, it should head off further trouble with a head replacement instead of a life extension. Davis-Besse went back service last July after it got the requisite surgery on the control drive mechanisms.
The reactor lid is 17 feet across, a dense one-piece casting nearly seven inches thick. It contains 69 holes for control rods of which eight are spares. Plant engineers said peak reactorcore temperatures accelerated the cracking of the chromium steel alloy.
The AREVA-manufactured reactor lid will be fitted with nozzles that have 15% chromium in the steel, an upgrade from the 10% chromium content of the older nozzles. The greater percentage of the new metal alloy is expected to better resist to high temperatures.
FirstEnergy has not disclosed how long it would take to flip the reactor’s lid or what it would cost, including the price of the lid itself.
Prior coverage on this blog
- March 2011 - Davis-Besse flips its lid
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