Crystal River 3 Nuclear Power Plant
(Photo: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
The Union Of Concerned Scientists, a science-based environmental watchdog non-profit, has just come out with a report which is the first in a series on the safety related performance of the owners of U.S. nuclear power plants and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which regulates the plants.
In 2010, the NRC reported on 14 special inspections it launched in response to troubling events, safety equipment problems, and security shortcomings at nuclear power plants. This report provides an overview of each of these significant events, or “near-misses.”
This overview shows that many of these signifi- cant events occurred because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems.
The report shows that the safety and oversight of nuclear power plants in the U.S. needs to be improved, and that the NRC, as the agency responsible for making sure those plants are run as safely as possible "gets mixed reviews."
Out of the 14 of what the UCS refers to as "near-misses," four of them took place in plants owned and operated by Progress Energy, which operates plants in Florida as well as several other states.
One of those near-misses took place at the Crystal River Three plant in Crystal River, Florida. According to the report:
Workers severely damaged thick concrete reactor containment walls when they cut a hole to replace steam generators. The ensuing inquiry concluded that the workers had applied more pressure than the concrete could withstand—a mistake that cost more than $500 million.
The Crystal River Plant has been offline since 2009 for what was supposed to be a planned refueling outage. That was when they discovered a crack in the concrete containment wall as they were getting ready to replace their old Steam Generators with new ones.
On October 2, 2009, while creating the opening, workers discovered an unexpected crack, or separation, inside the concrete wall. They noticed a gap between the outer 10 inches of concrete and the inner concrete. This gap has also been referred to as a delamination. After further excavation of the concrete wall, workers reached the steel liner. The liner was intact and undamaged. The 32 inches of concrete outside the steel liner also appeared unaffected by the delamination. The liner is one of three main barriers designed to protect the public and environment from radiation exposure.
The discovery of this gap in the concrete did not represent an immediate safety concern because the plant was shut down. However, because this issue involved possible adverse generic implications, and because the structural integrity of the containment was not fully known, Region II began a Special Inspection to better understand the issue. This inspection started on October 13, 2009.
The licensee made a voluntary notification to the NRC to describe the containment concrete issues.
The UCS report suggests there are concerns over Progress Energy because four of the 14 near-misses were at their plants, and they suggest that policy should be investigated for any company with one or more near-misses to "clarify whether the demand for profit interferes with public safety."
That plant owners could have avoided nearly all 14 near-misses had they corrected known deficiencies in a timely manner suggests that our luck at nuclear roulette may someday run out.
Since the crisis and possibility of multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan, lobbyists have been descending on Washington, D.C. to try and reinforce the belief that nuclear power plants are still safe. They're pushing for new plants to be built, as well as pushing for old plants to have their licenses renewed beyond the dates they were intended to operate for.
The Crystal River 3 plant was licensed in 1976 and its license will expire in 2016. The plant has applied for a renewal with a tentative decision date for September 2011. That schedule has been revised from an earlier one due to the containment issues above.
The plant operates a Babcock & Wilcox Lowered Loop Pressurized Water Reactor and has had numerous "enforcement actions" over the years, several documented as "Severity Level III" and with "Civil Penalties," from $50,000 to $100,000.
Progress Energy also has plans to build another nuclear plant eight miles north of the Crystal River Plant in Levy County, Florida.
Brunswick - Southport, NC:
Equipment failure prompted the plant owner to declare an emergency. Workers did not know how to operate the computer systems that automatically notified offsite workers to report immediately to emergency response facilities. Staffing and preparing these facilities took far longer than required.
HB Robinson - Florence, SC:
On the 31st anniversary of Three Mile Island, this event revisited nearly all the problems that caused that meltdown: bad design, poor maintenance of problematic equipment, inadequate operator per- formance, and poor training.
Also at HB Robinson - Florence, SC:
The same problems (see above) caused this reactor’s second near-miss in six months: bad design, nonconforming equipment, inadequate operator performance, and poor training. This baggage reflected years of programmatic failures.
Here we have lobbyists pushing for new plants, (subsidized by rate payers) and license renewals at old ones which might be operating long past the age they were intended to operate for, along with some members of Congress who seem to have a cavalier attitude towards the dangers of nuclear power plants, like John McCain and Joe Barton, while we watch a disaster unfolding at another in Japan. That disaster is just beginning and no one knows how severe the consequences will be, beyond what they already are. The one thing we do know, clearly there will be no good outcome.
We here along the Gulf Coast just watched another disaster unfold not even a year ago when the BP oil spill disaster unfolded. We still don't know the full extent of the damage from that one, and probably won't for a long time, but we have seen plenty for it already. That was a case where company oversight and safety issues were obviously a concern. It caused a great deal of environmental damage and health problems. It killed some, and destroyed the health and livelihood of many others, some who still haven't been compensated and who will never be the same.
We've also seen what no oversight or planning does when a disaster like Hurricane Katrina hits. It also devastated the Gulf coast and even six years later some areas never recovered.
Now we're watching the nightmare unfold at Fukushima. We don't have a great track record when it comes to disasters that could have been avoided. Do we really want to push the limit with old nuclear power plants that are well past their prime and build even more if we can't properly monitor the ones we already operate? If we have poor oversight now, as this report indicates, that's a big problem. All it takes is one slip up, one case of bad luck, one natural disaster. Or in the case of Japan, several natural disasters at once.
A disaster at a nuclear plant in Florida, or anywhere for that matter would pose dangerous consequences well beyond any we've ever faced before.
At the rate we're going, we can't afford to press our "luck."