Could the U.S. lose four reactors at three sites due to long term outages?
This is my updated coverage from Fuel Cycle Week V11:N481 for July 19, 2012 published by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC
The U.S. fleet of 104 operating reactors could be down to 100 unless heroic measures at four of them pay off and soon. Long-term outages threaten to raise questions of if or when they will return to revenue service.
Unlike the combination of an earthquake and tsunami that wrecked six nuclear reactors in Japan, all four of these losses to the U.S. grid are the results of self-inflicted wounds by the utilities that own and operate them.
Despite multi-billion dollar investments, and thousands of shareholders, it appears that some utility managers, or their vendors, have made decisions while looking at the donut hole instead of the donut.
Consider the cases of the Crystal River reactor in Florida, the San Onofre reactors in California, and the Ft. Calhoun reactor in Nebraska. What they have in common is that through a combination of mistakes involving equipment and facilities, compounded by safety issues, none of them are expected to return to generating electricity anytime soon. And that’s straight from the NRC.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with a brand new, largely unknown and untested, chairperson, has to sign off on restart of all of them. Allison Macfarlane offered what the New York Times characterized as “noncommittal” testimony when asked about her priorities on Jul 24 by the House Energy & Commerce Committee.
While her appointment is seen as a relief from the contentious tenure of her predecessor Gregory Jaczko, on the flip side, Macfarlane has no experience with nuclear reactor operations.
Crystal River cracks up
At the Crystal River reactor, originally owned by Progress, and now by Duke Energy, the utility’s engineers told management that it was inadvisable to cut into the concrete containment wall to replace a steam generator without the help of engineering firms which had done so successfully dozens of times.
Yet, Progress CEO William Johnson personally signed off on the equivalent of a “do it yourself” plan that resulted in severe damage to the concrete. In an effort to save $150 million, he wrecked a reactor containment structure which has a replacement value estimated to be well over $1 billion.
A rate case settled with the Florida Public Service Commission last January gives the utility until the end of 2012 to come up with an engineering plan to fix the reactor and a cost estimate. The utility must complete all repairs and have the reactor generating electricity by 2014 or pay significant financial penalties.
Unlike all of Duke’s other reactors, the Crystal River unit has not had its NRC license renewed. It expires in 2016. The NRC is unlikely to renew the license of a reactor with a breached containment structure if the repairs aren’t completed by then.
Insurance for repairs and replacement fuel costs are in question and isn’t enough, in any case, the make the utility whole financially speaking.
Speculation abounds in financial circles that Progress CEO William Johnson paid for the errors of his ways by being unceremoniously ousted from heading the merger of Duke and Progress one day after the deal closed.
The Wall Street Journal reported July 18 that Duke Energy’s defense in removing Johnson centers on how he handled the problems at Crystal River. According to the newspaper, Duke told the North Carolina Utility Commission that the Duke Board lost faith in Johnson because of the cost associated with repairing the reactor.
For Johnson’s part, he maintained that repairing the plant at a cost of $1.2 billion was far cheaper than building an entirely new reactor at a cost of at least ten times that amount. Progress has claimed the repairs, and a 20-year license extension due in 2016, provide a better return on investment, and no debt, compared to building new reactors.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the die may have been cast in late June after Duke board members reportedly got a look at an independent assessment of the technical and financial feasibility of repairing the containment wall. So far the report hasn’t been made public, but the bad news is already out there.
J.R. Kelly, the Public Counsel for the Florida Public Service Commission, told the Tampa Bay Times July 5 that he thinks Progress should decommission Crystal River and build a natural gas power plant in its place.
San Onofre out of steam
In southern California, two 1,100 MW PWRs at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) have been out of service since January when it was discovered that the tubes in the steam generators were showing excessive wear for their age.
Leaks in the tubes, which are in contact with water from the primary loop of the reactor, triggered the shutdown. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) supplied the units which were installed in 2010 at a total cost of close to $700 million.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said in a press statement and report July 19 faulty computer modeling that inadequately predicted conditions in steam generators at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), and manufacturing issues that tied back to Mitsubishi, which supplied the units, contributed to excessive wear of the steam generator tubes.
The NRC team also determined that Southern California Edison provided the NRC with all the information required under existing regulations about proposed design changes to its steam generators prior to replacing them in 2010 and 2011.
In effect the NRC said SCE did not mislead the agency about the designs, manufacturing, and installation changes to the steam generators by the manufacturer.
In an effort to identify the causes, the NRC said SCE brought in a large number of outside industry experts, consultants, and steam generator manufacturers, including Westinghouse and AREVA, to perform thermal-hydraulic and flow induced vibration modeling and analysis.
SCE identified “the most probable causes of the tube-to-tube wear as a combination of higher than predicted thermal/hydraulic conditions and changes in the manufacturing of the Unit 3 steam generators, a conclusion with which the NRC team agreed.”
“The changes in the manufacturing resulted in less contact forces between anti-vibration bars and the tubes. The combination of these causes allowed excessive vibration to occur.”
Troublesome Tubes plugged
Testing of the steam generator tubes by Southern California Edison, a consortium of engineering firms, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, turned up disturbing results. Each unit has two steam generators with 9,727 tubes. Tests on SONGS Unit 3 found wear in 4,721 places on 1,595 tubes. Using 35% as a threshold for excessive wear, the utility plugged 807 tubes in Unit 3 and 510 tubes in Unit 2.
Statistically speaking, the number of tubes affected is relatively small for both steam generators. Each steam generator has over 9,700 tubes.
What created a sense of alarm was that within Unit 3, with the steam generator less than four years old, 50% wear was found at 282 locations. Tube wear is suspected to have been caused by vibration, wear from the tube support plates, and tube-to-tube wear.
The regulatory agency also pointed to design issues not only for the units overall, but also to possible differences between the steam generator installed in Unit 2 and Unit 3.
Unit 2 was installed first and shows much less wear on its tubes. Had the units been identical in their design, fabrication, and installation, the wear patterns would very likely have been nearly identical.
Unanswered questions abound over how the current situation came to be and how and when, or if, the SONGS reactors will be restarted. The utility is going to have to prove to the NRC that it can operate the plant safely and that there will not be any leaks from the tubes which is the problem that shut down the reactors in the first place.
Also at issue is what kind of oversight was conducted, in terms of design, fabrication, and installation, by both Southern California Edison, and the NRC, in the first place when the steam generators were installed in 2009?
Anti-nuclear groups have had a field day with the shutdown of the reactors. Friends of the Earth (FOE) chartered a technical review of its own. The group has called for permanent closure of both reactors. The news media in Southern California has taken the FOE report seriously and played it up in coverage of the extended outage.
Finally, in what may look to some as a case of karmic payback, the Congressman from the district in which SONGS is located is Rep. Daryl Issa (R-Calif.) who led a scathing House Oversight Committee hearing last December into the management issue surrounding now former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.
Revelations from that hearing may have contributed to Jaczko’s decision to resign his post in late May.
For his part, Jaczko didn’t miss an opportunity to personally inspect SONGS in early May and declare that the reactors would not restart until they are safe.
In the meantime, Southern California Edison is paying out millions in replacement fuel costs and rate payers in Issa’s district and throughout Los Angeles and San Diego may yet see brownouts if an extended heat wave overwhelms the now underpowered grid.
Ft. Calhoun avoids taking a swim in the Missouri
While San Onofre is in hot water over problems with its steam generators, the 500 MW Ft. Calhoun Station, which is owned and operated by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD,) was nearly underwater as a result of floods along the Missouri River in Spring 2011.
The NRC’s enforcement action in October 2010 required the utility to make specific physical changes to raise the level of flood protection. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists thought, for a change, that the NRC had done its job and done it well.
While OPPD pushed back on demands by the NRC to improve flood protection measures, the proof of the agency’s judgment was confirmed in May 2011 as the rising waters of the swollen river came within the height of half a corn stalk of overtopping a special artificial dike built around the reactor site.
On June 6, 2011, the Ft. Calhoun Station, declared an unusual event in anticipation that its flood protection measures might fail. That didn’t happen, but NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko donned hip boots and visited the site to check things out two weeks later.
The plant, which had just completed a fuel outage before the floods, had been shut down as a safety measure. It remains shut down due to multiple problems with its safety related systems. A fire in an piece of electrical equipment on June 7, 2011, added to the NRC’s concerns.
On September 2, 2011, the NRC sent a confirmatory letter to OPPD spelling out the conditions the utility must meet to get the OK to restart the reactor. The utility must complete a long list of tasks in a Post Flooding Recovery Action Plan.
Asked when the plant might restart, Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the NRC, told FCW, “not anytime soon.”
Jeff Hanson, a spokesman for OPPD, was more optimistic telling FCW he thinks restart of the reactor could occur in September.
The Sierra Club has demanded that the NRC revoke the utility’s license to operate the plant.
The reactor began operations in August 1973. Its license was renewed for 20 years in 2003 and expires in 2023. There is plenty of life left in it which is why OPPD is pushing to get it back into revenue service.
Despite all its troubles, Ft. Calhoun has one thing going for it. The reactor also uses a steam generator supplied by MHI. So far it hasn’t had the problems experienced at San Onofre.
New meaning to the term “nuclear buzz”
In June 2011 the flooding situation in Nebraska was the subject of bizarre conspiracy theories originating in English language news media in Russia alleging that a meltdown has occurred at Ft. Calhoun and that the government is covering it up.
One widely read U.S. web site, Business Insider, ran with the story as legitimate and set off a huge round of copycat reports on the Internet.
Reports of a U.S. news blackout are also part of the conspiracy theory even though papers such as the Omaha World-Herald and the New York Times ran major stories on measures taken by OPPD sites to prevent the flood waters from reaching the reactor, turbine, and important infrastructure such as switch yards.
There was so much media interest in the site that news helicopters and airplanes were buzzing the nuclear plant violating the FFA's notice to airmen that is intended to keep planes away from power stations. See for instance this raw aerial video tour by Omaha station KETV on June 27, 2011.
As it turns out one of the unanticipated threats during the flood was that two of the media’s planes would collide in airspace over the reactor with the resulting wreckage crashing down into it. So much for flood control.
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