Nuclear reactor owners rush to extend licenses

Saturday, November 29, 2008
By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It took just 20 minutes at a motel in Moon this month for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to report approvingly on FirstEnergy Corp.'s plans to manage its two aging nuclear power reactors in Shippingport, Beaver County, and clear the way for the facility's 20-year license renewals.
A final NRC decision on the renewals for the Beaver Valley reactors isn't expected until the last half of 2009, but there's no rush and even less suspense.
The original 40-year operating license for Beaver Valley Unit 1 won't expire until January 2016, and the license for Unit 2 runs until May 2027.
And no relicensing requests have been denied.
The two Beaver Valley reactors are part of a big wave of aging atomic reactors hurrying to grab license renewals from the NRC many years before the end of their original 40-year licenses.
Since 2000, according to NRC records, 50 of the nation's 104 reactors have been relicensed, 13 of those at least 15 years before their original lice nses will end. Another 19 had licenses renewed at least 10 years before the originals will expire.
Among the 18 reactor license renewals now under review by the NRC, six are operating under original licenses that won't expire until 2022 at the earliest. The original license for one, the Vogtle Unit 2 reactor in Waynesboro, Ga., won't end until 2029.
The nuclear power industry says the early renewals are necessary for long-term planning, investment, maintenance and a stable electricity supply.
But citizen groups and industry watchdogs have criticized the process as perfunctory and inadequate to ensure safe operation and public health as the plants age.
"The plants are being relicensed early, in the prime of their lives, even though we don't know what they will look like or how they will perform as they move into old age," said Eric Epstein, an anti-nuclear activist who has spent three decades trying to shut down the Three Mile Island facility near Harrisburg. "But we've recognized that relicensing is a fait accompli, a done deal."
Mr. Epstein's EFMR Monitoring Group, established after the March 1979 accident at Three Mile Island's Unit 2 reactor, embraced that reality in May when it dropped its opposition to the relicensing of TMI Unit 1.
In return, Exelon, Three Mile Island's owner, agreed to pay for an expanded community radiation monitoring system, increase charitable donations to community groups and continue its policy of not storing waste from other nuclear plants. The company also agreed not to oppose the decommissioning of the TMI Unit 2 reactor, destroyed in the 1979 accident when equipment malfunction and operator error led to a partial meltdown of the reactor core and an air release of radioactive material.
That accident -- the most serious in U.S. nuclear commercial power plant history -- shook the public's confidence in atomic power and led to a moratorium on construction of new nuclear power plants.
But there is renewed interest in atomic power to redu ce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
"This is part of a nuclear renaissance," Peter Sena III, site vice president at FirstEnergy's Beaver Valley power plant, said after the NRC public meeting. "Beaver Valley has always been a good healthy plant and run very well. Since we bought it in 1999, we've invested $550 million to make sure it operates safely and reliably. Plus there are 17 applications for new nuclear reactors pending at the NRC."
Talk about new atomic power plants is a lot cheaper than building them. The cost of constructing a reactor has increased to more than $7 billion, up from $2.4 billion in 2006. Of the 36 reactors under construction worldwide, none are in the U.S.
"The industry has made a great deal of nuclear renaissance noise, but it hasn't added a single watt of electricity from new power plants," said Ray Shadis, a nuclear safety advocate for 30 years and former employee of the New England Coalition, a citizens group that opposed relicensing of several atomic power plants in new England.
He said the NRC relicensing not only fails to fairly assess the safety risks presented by an aging reactor but is allowing many of them to add and operate at increased power. Making more power at existing reactors increases their profitability but also increases their nuclear waste, water use and equipment stress.
"It's counterintuitive, but as these reactors are aging, the NRC and the industry are expecting more of them by licensing them to produce more power," Mr. Shadis said. "The safety margins are reduced, but the industry and NRC say not significantly. Opponents say they're already taking an unwarranted risk to run the plants."
That risk was highlighted at Entergy Nuclear's Vermont Yankee atomic power plant in Vernon, Vt., where a 50-foot tall cooling tower collapsed in August 2007 while the plant was undergoing an NRC relicensing review. Rotted wooden support beams inside the cooling tower were blamed.
The relicen sing process also has come under sharp criticism by the NRC's own Office of Inspector General in a September 2007 audit report that found some safety evaluations lacked necessary documentation and provided little evidence that inspectors had confirmed the integrity of aging safety systems they approved.
Similar concerns have been expressed by state officials in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.
Tony Pietrangelo, license renewal expert for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, said the NRC has already implemented the seven recommendations in the audit report, which he said focused on only a "sliver of the whole process."
The original NRC operating licenses for nuclear power reactors were issued for 40 years. Utilities may apply to renew those licenses for an additional 20 years. The license renewal process usually takes two years and requires the NRC to conduct an environmental review and a safety review, which focuses on company programs to manage the effects of aging on nonmoving parts of the reactor.
Risks of equipment failure or breakdown rise significantly and predictably as a nuclear reactor ages, according to David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer who wrote a 2004 report about the nation's aging nuclear reactors for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report noted safety risks spiked early in a nuclear facility's operation and again late in its operational life.
"All plants are in the wear-out phase of their life span where the risks heighten," Mr. Lochbaum said. "Vigilance needs to be high. It's something we need to watch."
Five of Pennsylvania's nine reactors have applied for license renewal: FirstEnergy Corp's two Beaver Valley reactors in Shippingport, Beaver County; Exelon Generating Co.'s Three Mile Island Unit 1 south of Harrisburg; and two reactors operated by PPL Corp. in Berwick, Luzerne County. There has been little opposition.
At Beaver Valley, FirstEnergy applied for renewal of both licenses in Aug ust 2007 but had to reapply when the NRC raised objections.
"We weren't happy with the quality of the original application," said Neil Sheehan, a NRC spokesman.
The NRC report on Beaver Valley, based on a two-week inspection of the Shippingport facility this summer by a six-man review team, identified several "low level" issues but no major problems.
"Overall conditions were about typical," said John Richmond, the NRC inspection team leader at Beaver Valley, who's done relicensing inspections at five other nuclear facilities. "We saw a number of issues they had to revise and add to the application. If they hadn't made the revisions, we wouldn't have come to the conclusion that it's OK."
Don Hopey can be reached atdhopey@post-gazette.comor 412-263-1983

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