Losing steam: U.S. nuclear power-plants

The Pilgrim nuclear power-plant in Plymouth may be the next casualty from the Fukushima, Japan disaster in 2011. Safety director David Noyes has warned that Entergy may close the plant if it can’t see a way to make money. Many South Shore neighbors would say, “Good riddance.”

Nuclear shutdowns: At the end of 2014, Entergy closed the Vermont Yankee nuclear power-plant in Vernon, near Brattleboro. Both the Plymouth and the Vernon reactors are close relatives of the wrecked nuclear reactors in Japan. All use BWR-3 and BWR-4 “Mark I” designs by General Electric, dating from the middle and late 1960s.

Those so-called “boiling water” reactors were cheaper to build than the “pressurized water” reactors from Westinghouse, Babcock & Wilcox and Combustion Engineering. They send steam directly from reactor cores into power turbines, rather than through heat exchangers that isolate radioactively contaminated core water.

For decades, the industry-dominated U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) dismissed potential problems with “boiling water” reactors as unlikely. Then came the simultaneous collapse of three of those reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, challenged by an earthquake and a tsunami. The three reactor enclosures failed, along with the spent-fuel enclosure of a fourth reactor, releasing clouds and streams of enormously radioactive materials into the countryside and the ocean.

Despite major alarms from the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, its “pressurized water” reactor resisted a partial collapse. Unlike gross failures of the “boiling water” reactors in Japan, nearly all the damage at Three Mile Island was contained inside a reactor enclosure.

Compared with their initially more costly relatives, “boiling water” reactors have narrower ranges of stability, making them more likely to overheat and collapse when challenged by problems. Among their problems, extra monitoring and maintenance has tended to make them more costly to operate. Quoting an unpublished report from UBS (formerly Union Bank of Switzerland), David Abel and Beth Healy of the Boston Globe claim the nuclear plant in Plymouth is losing more than $2 million a month.

Closing barn doors: NRC trundled out a set of “safety enhancements” that require costly retrofits. In traditional nuke-speak, institutional NRC flacks call those “lessons learned”–making themselves sound like sleazebags. Many lessons about hazards of boiling-water reactors were taught 40 years ago, after a near-disaster at the Browns Ferry nuclear power-plant in Alabama, but those lessons were not really learned.

A March, 1975, fire under the unit 1 control room at the Browns Ferry plant, ignited by careless workers, disabled safety systems and came within about an hour of collapsing the “boiling water” reactor. After that incident, General Electric assigned three senior engineering managers to investigate the safety of the plant’s three reactors. They reported that the reactors could not survive a major challenge.

The company largely disregarded their analysis. In February, 1976, Dale G. Bridenbaugh, manager of product service for the nuclear division of General Electric, and two other GE nuclear engineers, Richard Hubbard and Gregory Minor, resigned and tried to publicize the hazards. NRC commissioned a safety review, sometimes known as the Rasmussen Report (WASH-1400).

In a 1986 conference with industry executives, held at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Harold Denton, then director of the NRC Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, referred to the Rasmussen Report, saying it showed “something like a 90 percent probability of a containment failing” in a “boiling water” reactor using the General Electric “Mark I” designs.

Pilgrim’s progress: During the 1980s, Boston Edison, then the owner and operator of the Pilgrim plant, was plagued by safety citations. In 1982, NRC imposed its largest fine ever, $550,000, for safety failures. Boston Edison spent about $300 million on upgrades, but the failures continued. From 1986 to 1989, NRC closed Pilgrim, mainly for extensive worker retraining.

Trying to curry favor with NRC, in 1987 Boston Edison proposed a “direct torus vent system” intended to reduce hazards, also known as a “hard vent” system. NRC did not certify the system but allowed it to be installed. Although the “hard vent” system at Pilgrim was never given realistic testing, eventually most reactors of its type were retrofitted with similar “hard vents,” including ones in Japan.

The “hard vents” of the three Japanese reactors that collapsed all failed, and then the enclosures of those reactors exploded. NRC staff responded to the unreliability of “hard vents,” first designed for Pilgrim, in their highest-priority recommendations for new regulations in 2011. The required retrofits are very expensive, and they may not prevent disasters, because they do not address basic instabilities of the “Mark I” designs.

Nuclear losers: This year, Pilgrim is back in the federal doghouse. In March, it was downgraded to the lowest NRC safety rating short of impending closure. Entergy and Exelon are apparently pulling out. Exelon announced that it will close the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey by the end of 2019. That was built with an even earlier version of the “Mark I” reactor designs.

A parade of nuclear losers continues to lengthen. They are being ousted from business by poor operating economics of “boiling water” reactors, by high costs to recover from maintenance blunders and by high costs to retrofit unsafe designs. Those already ousted, over the past three years, have been:
* Crystal River 3, one reactor, Crystal Rver, FL, closed in 2013
* Kewaunee, one reactor, Carlton, WI, closed in 2013
* San Onofre, two reactors, San Diego County, CA, closed in 2013
* Vermont Yankee, one reactor, Vernon, VT, closed in 2014
* Oyster Creek, one reactor, Lacey Township, NJ, closing in 2019

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 27, 2015

Evan Allen, Pilgrim nuclear plant safety rating downgraded, Boston Globe, September 2, 2015

David Abel, Pilgrim nuclear plant says it may shut down, Boston Globe, September 17, 2015

David Abel and Beth Healy, No easy answers for Pilgrim nuclear power plant, Boston Globe, September 26, 2015

Market-driven reactor shutdowns threaten local economies, Nuclear Energy Institute, 2015

Jeff McMahon, Six nuclear plants that could be next to shut down, Forbes, November 7, 2013

Japan: lessons learned, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2015

Prioritization of recommended actions, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, SECY-11-0137, October 3, 2011

Craig Bolon (as AppDev), Will Japan’s nuclear disaster help make Pilgrim in Plymouth safer?, Boston Globe, October 31, 2011

Tom Zeller, Jr., Experts had long criticized potential weakness in reactor design, New York Times, March 15, 2011

Matthew Mosk, Nuclear reactor design caused GE scientist to quit in protest, ABC News, March 15, 2011

Pilgrim reactor restarted after 3-year shutdown, Associated Press, January 1, 1989

David Dinsmore Comey, Fire at the Browns Ferry nuclear power station, Friends of the Earth, 1976

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