Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear Regulatory Commission’

A licensing hearing for South Texas Project reactors begins today in Austin, Texas.

The hearing is on the application to expand the South Texas Nuclear plant and raises key issues, especially in light of the explosions, fires and meltdowns at Fukushima.

An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel–an independent body within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)–will hear oral arguments and conduct an evidentiary hearing beginning at 9:30 a.m. in Room 2210, Building F at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), 12100 Park 35 Circle in Austin. On the 18th and 19th the hearing will continue in Building E, Room 201 S at TCEQ.

The public is invited to the hearing, but participation is limited to the parties admitted to the proceeding: the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy, Public Citizen, the applicant, NINA, and NRC staff.

the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy and Public Citizen will raise the issue of whether it is possible to control multiple reactors after a fire or explosion at one of the units, and question the need for more reactors since new federal energy efficiency laws are in place.

Another major issue the groups hope to raise is the applicant (Nuclear Innovation North America – NINA) doesn’t meet federal requirements prohibiting foreign ownership, control or domination of a U.S. nuclear facility.

The South Texas Project expansion has been hurting for investors.  TEPCO, the owner of the ill-fated Fukushima reactors, will no longer invest in the reactors. Austin Energy has chosen not to invest and City Public Service in San Antonio has reduced its 50% interest to only 7%.  Even NRG, the major force behind the reactor project, is no longer investing.   The nuclear license is still being sought by NINA- a partnership of NRG Energy and Toshiba – but only Toshiba is an investing partner at this time and it is also a foreign company.  Opponents have called for a halt to licensing, especially since a license could be sold in the future.

“Fukushima shows just how dangerous it is to have a lot of reactors in one location. We will raise safety concerns about locating so many nuclear reactors close together,” said Karen Hadden, SEED Coalition’s Executive Director. “We’re raising concerns about the legality of foreign ownership of the proposed reactors.”

“Texas doesn’t need or want more nuclear power,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “We have safer, cleaner and more affordable energy options available today. New federal building codes and appliance standards will improve efficiency, making the two additional nuclear plants unnecessary. San Antonio’s reduced nuclear project share is being replaced through energy efficiency, wind and solar power and natural gas.”


The South Texas Project COL application was submitted to the NRC on Sept. 20, 2007, the first such application in the United States in nearly 30 years. The license would allow construction and operation of South Texas Project reactors 3 & 4 at the existing Bay City, Texas site.

Over the past four years, the proposed nuclear project has experienced:

  • Cost estimates that have skyrocketed from $5.6 billion to over $18 billion.
  • A major pull-back by NRG’s partner, San Antonio’s CPS Energy, from a 50% stake down to 7%, which left a huge investor gap.
  • NRG Energy and TEPCO will no longer invest in the project. Previously anticipated loan guarantees from Japan now appear unlikely. Despite the lack of further investment, NINA  continues to seek a license for the proposed reactors. NRG will give Toshiba $20 million for this purpose.

Individuals or groups not admitted to the proceeding can submit “written limited appearance statements” to the ASLB. Anyone wishing to submit a written statement can email [email protected], or fax to (301) 415-1101, or send mail to: Office of the Secretary, Attn. Rulemaking and Adjudications Staff, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001. In addition, copies of written statements should be sent to  [email protected] and [email protected]; by fax to (301-415-5599), or by mail to: Administrative Judge Michael M. Gibson, Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, Mail Stop: T-3F23, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001.

Documents related to the South Texas Project COL application are available on the NRC website. Documents pertaining to the ASLB proceeding are available in the agency’s electronic hearing docket. NOTE: Anyone wishing to take photos or use a camera to record the hearing should contact the NRC Office of Public Affairs beforehand.

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Despite the fact that NRG/Toshiba (formally know together as NINA) has been unsuccessful in their multi-year efforts to expand by two units, the South Texas “Nuclear” Project (STP) – the process for their Combined License (COL) is proceeding. 

An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel will hear oral argument and conduct an evidentiary hearing, beginning Aug. 17 in Austin, Texas which will begin at 9:30 a.m. CDT, in Room 2210, Building F of the Campus of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 12100 Park 35 Circle in Austin. The session is open for public observation, but participation will be limited to the parties admitted to the proceeding (Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy, Public Citizen, the applicant – Nuclear Innovation North America (NINA) – and NRC staff).

The ASLB is the independent body within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that presides over proceedings involving the licensing of civilian nuclear facilities, such as nuclear power plants.

The South Texas Project COL application was submitted Sept. 20, 2007, the first such application in the United States in nearly 30 years.  STP was seeking permission to construct and operate two new nuclear reactors at the site near Bay City, Texas.  The ASLB granted intervenor status and an opportunity for a hearing to the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy, and Public Citizen. The groups have submitted objections, or contentions, challenging the COL application, most recently regarding the question of whether NINA meets NRC requirements prohibiting foreign ownership, control or domination of a nuclear facility in the U.S.

Over the past four years, this project has experienced:

  • An increase in their estimate to build the new units from 5.6 billion dollars to over 18 billion dollars
  • A major pull back by their local partner, San Antonio’s CPS from a 50% ownership to 7%
  • A struggle to find new partners with the only interest from TEPCO – the operators of the doomed Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and the Bank of Japan,
  • The melt through of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s eastern coast and subsequently caused the meltdown of the nuclear industry throughout the world.

We would encourage any interested to attend.  Early arrival each day is suggested to allow for security screening for members of the public attending. NRC policy prohibits signs, banners, posters or displays in the hearing room at any time during the proceeding.

Individuals or groups not admitted to the proceeding can submit “written limited appearance statements” to the ASLB. Anyone wishing to submit a written statement may do so by email to [email protected], by fax to (301) 415-1101, or by mail to: Office of the Secretary, Attn. Rulemaking and Adjudications Staff, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001. In addition, copies of written statements should be sent to the Chairman of the Licensing Board by e-mail to [email protected] and [email protected]; by fax to (301-415-5599), or by mail to: Administrative Judge Michael M. Gibson, Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, Mail Stop: T-3F23, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001.

Documents related to the South Texas Project COL application are available on the NRC website. Documents pertaining to the ASLB proceeding are available in the agency’s electronic hearing docket. More information about the ASLB can be found at the NRC website.

NOTE: Anyone wishing to take photos or use a camera to record any portion of a NRC meeting should contact the Office of Public Affairs beforehand.

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Earlier this week, NPR reported on the anticipated arrival of nearly 1,000 tons of nuclear waste from Germany at Oak Ridge, TN. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a plan in June for an American company to import and burn low-level nuclear waste from Germany.  The radioactive residue left over from the process will be sent back to Germany for disposal.  That’s a lot of travel for waste, and Germany isn’t the only country looking for means of disposing of its radioactive waste.

Located just outside Knoxville, Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1942 to help build the atomic bomb and has become a world-renowned center for nuclear research. Operations there generate a great deal of radioactive waste and some of that waste ends up at EnergySolutions’ Bear Creek incinerator plant in Oak Ridge.

With the recent permitting of WCS in Texas, there are now four low-level waste facilities in the U.S, Barnwell in South Carolina, Richland in Washington, and Clive in Utah are the others. The Barnwell and the Clive locations are operated by EnergySolutions, the Richland location is operated by U.S. Ecology and the Texas site is operated by Waste Control Specialists.  WCS, Barnwell and Richland accept Classes A through C of low-level waste, whereas Clive only accepts Class A. The Department of Energy (DOE) also has dozens of LLW sites under management which includes the Bear Creek incinerator.

When you start to talking about managing the rest of the world’s waste, the German waste looks like the beginning of what could be a large flood of material from other countries.  And given the blank check the Texas legislature handed WCS this past legislative session, you can bet they will be back at the table trying to get a piece of that operation.  Let’s hope the Texas legislature stands firm in their resolve to not accept foreign radioactive waste, ‘cause there is a lot of it that could come our way.

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Although flood concerns at Nebraska’s two nuclear power plants have subsided for the time being, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has announced short and long term plans that will examine and possibly affect flood safety at both reactors.  The NRC is schedule to be in Omaha starting July 27th examining flood control at the Fort Calhoun Station.

Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant during the height of the flood after a 2000 foot long water filled barrier berm failed

In the meantime, the NRC issued a memo yesterday announcing that the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant will be receiving additional oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because of problems associated with the reactor protection system at the plant that was uncovered during a scheduled test on June 14, 2010.  At that time, one of four electrical contacts failed in a system used to “trip” or automatically shut down the reactor. The condition appears to have existed for 63 days before it was discovered.  This means the condition was in place before flooding was a concern at the plant,  Fort Calhoun has been shut down since April 7th for a refueling outage, and remained shutdown after June 6 when concerns about flooding along the Missouri River began.  The emergency status abated with the river cresting June 23rd .

While the NRC says the failure did not pose a danger to public health or safety, because other means existed to perform that safety function if necessary and the operator of the plant has replaced the defective electrical component, it does appear that had the plant been operating when the flooding occurred, emergency shutdown might have been compromised.

The NRC preliminarily determined that the violation was “yellow,” meaning it has substantial safety significance (NRC evaluates performance at nuclear power plants with a color coded process which classifies regulatory findings as either green, white, yellow or red, in order of increasing safety significance) and has since downgraded it to white.

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NRC Japan Task Force Report CoverThe Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Japan Task Force has proposed improvements in areas ranging from loss of power to earthquakes, flooding, spent fuel pools, venting and preparedness, and said a “patchwork of regulatory requirements” developed “piece-by-piece over the decades” should be replaced with a “logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework” to further bolster reactor safety in the United States.

The report has been given to the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who are responsible for making decisions regarding the Task Force’s recommendations.

While declaring that “a sequence of events like the Fukushima accident is unlikely to occur in the United States” and that plants can be operated safely, the Task Force also recognized that “an accident involving core damage and uncontrolled release of radioactivity to the environment, even one without significant health consequences, is inherently unacceptable and proposed a comprehensive set of 12 recommendations to increase safety and redefine what level of protection of public health is regarded as adequate. It also recommended additional study of some issues.

The recommendations looked at ensuring protection, enhancing accident mitigation, strengthening emergency preparedness and improving the efficiency of NRC programs.

The report noted that the current NRC approach to regulation includes requirements for protection and responses for events that the facilities were originally designed to stand up to, such as earthquakes of the largest magnitude, or the highest flood level, or the strongest hurricane that had been experienced in the area at the time the permit was approved.  These are referred to as “design-basis” events.  There are also modest requirements for some “beyond-design-basis” events as well as voluntary initiatives by individual plant operators to address severe accident issues that are part of the NRC’s current framework for protection against what happened at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island or Fukushima.  But as noted by the task force, the current approach is piecemeal.

The report recommends a more coherent regulatory framework that balances defense-in-depth (layered security mechanisms that increase security of the system as a whole) and risk considerations that includes, but is not limited to:

  • Requiring plants to reevaluate and upgrade as necessary their seismic and flooding protections and reconfirm every 10 years;
  • Strengthening Station Black Out (SBO) systems so that plants could cope with offsite or onsite power outages for a minimum of 8 hours; establishing equipment, procedures and training to keep the core and spent fuel pool cool at least 72 hours; and developing plans for offsite resources to be delivered to the site to support uninterrupted core and pool cooling;
  • Requiring that emergency plans address prolonged station blackouts and events involving multiple reactors;
  • Requiring additional instrumentation and seismically protected systems to provide additional cooling water to spent fuel pools if necessary;
  • Reviewing vent designs and identifying, as part of the longer term review, insights about hydrogen control and mitigation inside containment or in other buildings.

We now wait to see if and how the NRC will incorporate these recommendations into their licensing and regulatory authority over the U.S.’s nuclear fleet.  It is doubtful that this will slow the rush to relicense that is occurring around the country as plants near the end of their planned life.

Click here to read the full 79-page report.

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Exelon’s  Dresden Nuclear Power Plant located in Morris, Ill., roughly 60 miles southwest of Chicago declared an alert at 10:16 a.m. CT today after a chemical leak restricted access to a vital area that houses plant cooling water pumps.  The leaking chemical is sodium hypochlorite, which is similar to bleach, and is routinely used in plant operations to treat water.

NRC says there is currently no impact to the public health and safety and the environment.

The leak has been stopped and clean up by plant workers is underway.  The utility reported about 330 gallons of the chemical leaked and two plant workers who were working in the area were taken offsite for treatment due to possible inhalation of the chemical fumes

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Bashing Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), has become a regular habit in Japan over the past three months. While Tepco managers certainly bungled the response to the crisis at the company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Tepco wasn’t operating in a vacuum.  Indications are that failures of corporate governance policies and the regulatory entity’s cozy relationship with industry contributed to the environment that left the Japanese public angered at both the Fukushima Daiichi operators and their government in the wake of the nuclear disaster that befell their country.   Japanese policy makers still are pretending Tepco is simply one bad apple, while ignoring systemic problems and the Japanese public is intent on going after Tepco.

Protests outside TEPCO shareholder meeting

Protests outside TEPCO shareholder meeting

Angry shareholders of Japan’s Tepco slammed the company for its handling of the nation’s worst ever atomic accident after the March quake-tsunami, amid calls for the firm to abandon nuclear power.  Protests were held outside the shareholder meeting on June 28th.

In the meantime, here in the US policy makers are still debating the future of nuclear power while Mother Nature keeps sending gentle reminders of the risks. Flood waters from the Missouri River breeched a damaged berm around Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun reactor  over the weekend inundating the site under several feet of water. Meanwhile, at Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb and home to 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste, wildfires are still raging.

But back at Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the NRC keeps telling Congress and the media that the probability of a nuclear disaster on U.S. soil similar to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi meltdown is “very, very small.”  And the rest of the agency falls into line with federal regulators insisting that U.S. nuclear power plants are operating safely while they move forward with 12 applications for new nuclear power plans and five different reactor designs, as well as more and more applications for re-licensing of the 104 aging nuclear plants now operating. 

“At this time the agency considers that the existing emergency preparedness framework and regulations provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety in the event of a radiological  emergency at a US power reactor facility,” Jaczko submitted in written testimony to Congress on June 16.  But the results of a  special inspection of U.S. nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster in Japan revealed problems with emergency equipment and disaster procedures that are far more pervasive than publicly described by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

The NRC ordered the inspection to conduct a fast check on the equipment and procedures that U.S. plants are required to have in place in the event of a catastrophic natural disaster or a terrorist attack in response to the March earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima’s reactors. 

Agency officials unveiled the results in May, stating  “out of 65 operating reactor sites, 12 had issues with one or more of the requirements during the inspections.”  But an closer examination of the reports from those inspections by ProPublica found that 60 plant sites had deficiencies that ranged from broken machinery, missing equipment and poor training to things like blocked drains or a lack of preventive maintenance. Some of the more serious findings include:

While the deficiencies don’t pose an immediate risk and are relatively easy to fix, critics say they could complicate the response to a major disaster and point to a weakness in NRC oversight.

In a summary attached to the inspection findings even the NRC expressed some concern.

“While individually, none of these observations posed a significant safety issue, they indicate a potential industry trend of failure to maintain equipment and strategies required to mitigate some design and beyond design-basis events,” the summary says.

The special inspection covered equipment and procedures for use in disasters that are beyond the scope of the plant’s design — major earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and terrorist attacks.

The Fukushima accident has focused the NRC’s attention on the risk that a natural disaster or attack could knock out a plant’s safety systems for an extended period and lead to a radiation release.

Although all plants are designed to withstand natural disasters, U.S. nuclear facilities are aging. Recent studies have shown that earthquake risks are actually higher than they were predicted when some plants were built, although the NRC says reactors can still withstand the highest expected quake (but that’s what Japan thought). Now historic flooding on the Missouri River is testing design limits at two Nebraska plants.

So keep this in mind, like the reports coming from Tepco and the Japanese government after the problems started at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, NRC’s jargon-laden communiques freqently reflect what the operator has reported, and do little to shed light on any issues or events occurring at nuclear power plants throughout our country.  When the agency says that America’s 104 operating nuclear power plants are being inspected to deal with power loss or damage that might follow an “extreme” event, keep in mind the NRC’s loosening of standards over the years at the industry’s urging and the other policies put in place because of the agency’s cozy relationship with the industry.  The nuclear industry here in the US is not so different from Japan’s.  Whose heads will we want if there is some catastrophic failure at one of our own plants?

The full report of lessons learned from the Fukushima incident will arrive on July 19. For now, the world’s other 336 other radioactive reactors are also being pushed by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to launch a series of national safety tests backed by international inspections.

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Global Support for Nuclear Power Drops

A new Ipsos/Reuters poll released on June 22nd reveal that global support for nuclear power has plummetted in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. A survey of over 19,000 people in 24 countries showed that three quarters of people now think nuclear power will soon be obsolete.  Only three countries still show support for nuclear power: the U.S., India and Poland.

Recent investigative reporting shows that the relative safety of nuclear power in the U.S. is tenuous, despite what some politicians have claimed. A big problem is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been working with the nuclear power industry to keep our country’s reactors operating within safety standards, but they’ve been doing it by either weakening those standards, or not enforcing them at all. A year-long investigation by the Associated Press (AP) revealed that the NRC has extended licenses for dozens of aging U.S. nuclear plants despite their having multiple problems, like rusted pipes, broken seals, failed cables and leaking valves. When such problems are found, the NRC will weaken the standards to help the plants meet them instead of ordering them to be repaired to meet current standards. The nuclear industry argues that the standards they are violating are “unnecessarily conservative,” so the NRC simply loosens the standards.

Just last year, the NRC weakened the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage to nuclear reactor vessels — for the second time. Through public record requests to the NRC, the AP obtained photographs of badly rusted valves, holes eaten into the tops of reactor vessels, severe rust in pipes carrying essential water supplies, peeling walls, actively leaking water pipes and other problems found among the nation’s fleet of aging nuclear reactors.

Fukushima has been a wake up call about the dangers of nuclear power, and some countries are heeding the information. But it seems the U.S. is lagging behind when it comes to this issue. Light-to-absent coverage of TEPCO’s struggles to bring Fukushima under control, legislators who insist on acting favorably towards the nuclear power industry despite the deteriorated state of our current reactor fleet and an ineffective Nuclear Regulatory Commission have all contributed to a bad combination of a dangerous situation and a complacent American public on this issue.

This combination of lax regulations and questionable maintenance at US nuclear facilities is especially concerning with the flooding that two Nebraska nuclear plants are now facing from the swollen Missiouri River. 

Here in Texas, the first hearing to determine what issues would be addressed in the Sustaninable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition’s intervention in the re-licensing application of the South Texas Nuclear plant in Matagorda County happened Monday.  There are indications that the NRC is being more mindful that they appear more concerned with safety issues in the relicensing process, but we will see whether this is window dressing or if the agency is going to apply some lessons learned from Fukushima to our country’s relicensing process as this application moves forward.

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The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is monitoring events at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant after a protective berm holding back floodwaters from the Missouri River collapsed early today.

The plant, located about 19 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska, is operated by Omaha Public Power District.  NRC has been monitoring this plant since  June 6th because of flooding along the river. 

The situation at this plant, in spite of the reassurances of the operators and the NRC, has been a bit nerve wracking following on the heels of the Japanese disaster, especially for those of us who see the NRC more as an industry cheerleader than a safety agency. 

On June 9th, a fire in an electrical switch room briefly knocked out cooling for a pool holding spent nuclear fuel, and just last October, the plant was cited because they failed to maintain procedures for combating a major flood, earning them a “yellow” safety violation.  Since that time, the plant has put measures in place, but there is still concern about how effective these measures will be in the face of this record breaking flood event, especially in  light of the most recent events.

Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant and the flood of 2011 photo by Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters

A 2,000 foot-long, 8-foot-tall by 16-foot-wide, water-filled temporary berm was put in place to provide supplemental flood protection to the plant, but it collapsed about 1:25 a.m. today allowing floodwaters to surround the auxiliary and containment buildings.  The operators and NRC are telling the public that the plant is protected by design to a floodwater level of 1014 mean sea level and that while the Missouri River is currently at 1006.3 feet, river levels are not expected to exceed 1008 feet. 

Worst-case scenario plans are also in place if floodwaters should reach 1,014 feet, breech the levee and prohibit further use of emergency generators. In that circumstance, plant officials plan to tap into power lines running above the facility and/or utilize secondary backup generators housed at 1,036 feet.

Before floodwaters could flow into the cooling pool the river would need to rise to an incredibly unprecedented 1,038.5 feet, which we assume would also knock out those secondary backup generators housed at 1,036 feet.  At that point, “what the Fukushima”, all bets are off.

Aquadam at Ft Calhoun (before failure) is 2000 ft long, 8 ft high and 16 ft wide.

The collapse of the berm also allowed floodwaters to surround the main electrical transformers, forcing the shutdown of electrical power. Operators transferred power from offsite sources routed through the main electrical transformers to the emergency diesel generators. Twelve hours later they were able to reconnect to offsite power.

Oh, and did we mention that there were tornados in the area over the weekend?  Just a little added excitement.

Media coverage should provide updates for this situation and we’ll blog more about it has we receive information.

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According to an Associated Press investigative report, three-quarters of the nation’s commercial nuclear power sites have had tritium leaks (a radioactive form of hydrogen), often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping and the number and severity of the leaks has been escalating as the reactors age, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation.  Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard — sometimes at hundreds of times the limit.  Click here to read the entire AP story.

Population near aging Texas nuclear plants.

Comanche Peak

South Texas Project


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Facilities that process large quantities of radioactive material have the potential for significant environmental contamination due to the scale of their operations. Over time, leaks from these facilities can lead to significant radioactive contamination of the subsurface soil and groundwater.  In addition, the high costs of disposing of radioactive material off-site may lead these facilities to store more waste on site, increasing the potential for subsurface radioactive contamination and significantly higher decommissioning costs.

Currently these facilities are required to perform surveys to verify that radioactive releases are below regulatory requirements and do not pose public health hazards.  However, the NRC believes that existing regulations were not clear enough concerning subsurface contamination.

A new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rule would now require these facilities to minimize the introduction of residual radioactivity at their sites during operations. It also requires reporting of additional details about a facilities cost estimates for decommissioning and tightens NRC control over certain financial instruments set aside to cover eventual decommissioning costs.

These new regulations, which will take effect December 17, 2012, were designed to prevent future “legacy sites” with insufficient funds for decommissioning. A legacy site is a facility with an owner who cannot complete complex decommissioning work for technical or financial reasons, causing those costs to fall to the taxpayer.

An unintended consequence will be that there is that much more low-level radioactive that will need to be disposed of in sites such as the Andrews County site that the Texas legislature just passed legislation on opening it up to accept waste from outside the original two state compact (Texas and Vermont).  Click here to read more about radioactive waste disposal in the US.

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Critiques of nuclear generation have generally revolved around safety risks and high construction fees, but relatively little attention has been paid to what happens when a nuclear plant powers down for good.

Costs Can Reach Over $1 Billion

Nuclear plants must be decommissioned at the end of their useful life, and operating licenses are generally for 40-60 years. The costly, labor-intensive process involves two major actions: nuclear waste disposal and decontamination to reduce residual radioactivity.

There are currently 104 commercial nuclear power plants operating in the US, most of which were built in the 1970s and are slated for decommissioning during the next three decades.

At least one nuclear plant now running will be shut for good in the next several years, namely Exelon Corp’s Oyster Creek plant in 2019. Before then, we could see Entergy Corp’s Vermont Yankee plant shutter as early as next year, should the state’s veto of a license already granted by the NRC hold up in court.  And New York State politicians continue to wield whatever pressure they can to keep Indian Point from winning a license extension in ongoing proceedings.

South Texas Nuclear Project (STP) in Matagorda County licenses expire in 2027 and 2028, they recently applied for a license renewal which would extend the life of the plants 20 years, and they would expire in 2047 and 2048 respectively.  The license renewal application is being contested and you can click here to find out how you can listen in to the 1st Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) hearing on this license renewal application.  However, even if the license renewal is approved, there is a possibility that at some point before the license expiration dates, the costs of repairs could exceeded the value of the plant, and dismantling it could offer a better financial option.

As of April 2011, there were 23 nuclear units in various stages of decommissioning. Only ten out of the 23 have been completely cleaned up.

Decommissioning costs typically run at $500 million per reactor unit. But actual costs vary based on size and design, and some have reached over $1 billion — that is between 10 percent and 25 percent of the estimated cost of constructing a nuclear reactor today.

About 30 percent of the cost of decommissioning goes towards waste disposal.

A decommissioned plant creates several different streams of waste

  • Spent nuclear fuel rods are kept in dry storage or in spent fuel ponds at the reactor sites. An average nuclear plant generates 20 metric tons (44,092 lbs) of used nuclear fuel annually, or 1,200 metric tons over a plant’s 60-year lifespan. Every 3 to 5 years, one-third of the fuel assembly rods in the reactor are removed and stored in storage pools for about 10 to 20 years. During this period, the fuel loses much of its radioactivity and heat.  After that period, the fuel can be stored in large sealed metal casks that can be cooled by air. Typically a 1000 MWe reactor will discharge about 2 metric tons of high level waste each refueling. A PWR will discharge 40 to 70 fuel rods; a BWR will discharge 120 to 200 fuel rods.
  • Anything contaminated with lower levels of radiation — pipes, tools, workers’ clothing, reactor housings, really, pretty much everything but the spent fuel rods — are sent to special low-level nuclear waste facilities around the country. The remaining non-radiated waste can be disposed of in regular landfills.

Three pathways to decommissioning

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission offers utilities three options for decommissioning plants.

  • The first option is immediate cleanup after the plant shuts down.
  • In the second option, called SAFSTOR, the plant is closed and awaits cleanup at a later time, offering plants extra time to increase their decommissioning funds.While there is a requirement for operators to set aside funds for decommissioning, some plants have had to shut down before they had sufficient decommissioning funds and once they shut down, the revenue stream dries up.  This means they must wait until their funds accrue sufficient interest to begin decommissioning.The NRC gives utilities up to 60 years to complete decommissioning.This waiting period adds flexibility for plant owners with multiple reactors that shut down at different times. Once all the reactors cease operation they will be decommissioned together to save money and resources.

Of the 13 reactors currently being decommissioned, six chose immediate decontamination and seven remain in SAFSTOR conditions.

  • No U.S. plant has ever chosen the third decommissioning option, called ENTOMB.Workers would begin by moving the fuel rods into dry storage casks removing 99.9 percent of the plant’s radiation, but which currently must be stored on site.  Next, they use solvents and filters to clean up other contaminated surfaces.The other radioactive material onsite is sent to low-level waste facilities, and the plant is left to sit for decades.With ENTOMB there is no requirement to build extra containment buildings because the NRC postulates that most of the radiation will already be gone, though plant operators would continue to monitor the site for security.After 80 to 100 years, the plant would be safe enough to enter while wearing street clothes, and workers could dismantle the plant with just “a plasma torch and dust mask”.Still utilities don’t like the ENTOMB option because they don’t want to deal with the long-term liability.

Radioactivity for Volume

Low-level radiation waste comes in three varieties: Class A, B and C. Class A waste contains the lowest levels of radiation.

There are three low-level nuclear waste facilities in the United States — in Clive, Utah; Barnwell, South Carolina and Hanford, Washington. Clive only accepts Class A waste; the other two sites accept Class B and C waste but only from select northwestern and eastern states.

The new low-level waste facility under construction in Andrews County, Texas will accept Class A, B and C waste, and originally limited its intake to nuclear waste from Texas and Vermont, but the Texas legislature just opened the site up to take waste from outside the original compact, meaning it could take waste from anywhere in the United States.  However, a study by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality indicates the site only has the capacity to take the low-level radioactive waste from the six Texas and Vermont reactors.

When Barnwell and Hanford started restricting their operations, nuclear plants adjusted their practices. Operators began changing filters more often to selectively create Class A waste that could be sent to Clive.  As a result, Class B and C now make up less than 15 percent of low-level nuclear waste.

So after nearly 60 years, with 104 nuclear reactors approaching the end of their useful life, it remains unclear how this country is going to deal with the decommissioning waste.  How foolish would a nuclear renaissance be in the face of this unsurmounted problem?  The industry continues to insist, over-optimistically, that we will find a long-term solution, yet ,pessimistically, doesn’t think we can find a replacement renewable energy source in the same time frame.  The industry dost protest too much, methinks.

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An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) will hear oral argument on June 27, via teleconference, on the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development [SEED] Coalition’s request to participate in the South Texas Project operating reactor license renewal proceeding. The ASLB is the independent body within the NRC that presides over hearings where the public can challenge proposed licensing and enforcement actions.

Oral arguments will begin at 10 a.m. EDT on Monday, June 27, and the Board expects the session will conclude by noon. The session is open for public observation, but participation will be limited to the parties in the proceeding (the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development [SEED] Coalition, the applicant – South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company [STPNOC] – and NRC staff).

Members of the public interested in listening to the oral arguments should contact ASLB staffer Jonathan Eser (301-415-5880 or [email protected]) for the telephone number and passcode.

NOTE: STPNOC submitted an application Oct. 28, 2010, to renew the licenses for both South Texas Project reactors near Bay City, Texas. The NRC’s environmental and safety evaluations of the application are underway. The current license for South Texas Project Unit 1 expires Aug. 20, 2027, and the license for Unit 2 expires Dec. 15, 2028. Documents related to the South Texas Project license renewal application are available on the NRC website.

The ASLB is considering the SEED Coalition’s petition to intervene in the proceeding, including the group’s objections, or contentions, against STPNOC’s application. The ASLB will hear oral argument on several aspects of the petition. Documents pertaining to the ASLB proceeding are available in the agency’s electronic hearing docket. More information about the ASLB is available on the NRC website.

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According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Japanese authorities are now admitting the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in March may have been worse than a core meltdown.

IAEAIn an official report that will go to the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) set up in 1957, Japan now says nuclear fuel in three reactors possibly melted through several pressure vessels and into the earth below.  This type of event, called a melt-through, is the worst outcome in a nuclear accident.

GOSHI HOSONO, SPECIAL ADVISOR TO JAPANESE PM (Translation): At present there is damage to the bottom of the reactor container, we call this ‘core melting’ in English. Part of the nuclear fuel has fallen onto the dry earth floor and it’s possible that it’s still lodged there.

TETSURO FUKUYAMA, GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN (Translation): Hot spots were found, meaning there were certain spots with very high readings of radiation.

According to atomic experts, this is about as serious as it gets in a nuclear disaster. Dangerous levels of radioactive iodine and cesium have already contaminated the sea, the soil, groundwater, and the air.

This week plutonium was detected for the first time outside the stricken plant, and Strontium-90, known as a bone seeker because it can cause bone cancer and leukemia, has now been found as far away as 37 miles from the facility.

In a draft report to the IAEA, Japan admitted that it wasn’t prepared for the Fukushima meltdown.  Further, it also acknowledged that its nuclear regulator was run by a ministry, which has been the chief promoter of nuclear energy for decades (sound like another nuclear regulatory agency that we know closer to home?).

In an NRC memo issued on Thursday – Subject:  NRC MONITORED ALERT, FLOODING (and a FIRE!!!!) AT FORT CALHOUN NUCLEAR STATION (the portion in red are mine, the rest is the NRC’s memo).

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Tuesday monitored conditions at the Fort Calhoun Station, located 19 miles north of Omaha, Neb. The plant, operated by Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), declared an Alert at 9:40 a.m. CDT.

The Alert was declared due to an indication of fire in the west switchgear room at 9:30 a.m. Automated fire suppression systems activated as expected and the fire was confirmed out at 10:20 a.m. OPPD exited the alert at 1:15 p.m. An “Alert” is the second lowest of four emergency classes. OPPD briefly activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the Joint Information Center (JIC).

For the duration of the event the NRC monitored developments from its incident response center at its Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, and received updates from the onsite NRC Inspectors. OPPD notified the states of Nebraska and Iowa.

There was no danger to the public of a radiation release because the plant has been shut down since early April for a refueling outage and remains in that condition (much like the Fukushima Dai-ichi units 4, 5, and 6). Although the plant briefly lost its normal ability to cool the spent fuel pool, temperatures in the pool remained at safe levels and the plant recovered pool cooling without the need for any of the plant’s multiple backup systems.

The licensee previously entered a Notice of Unusual Event due to the rising level of the Missouri River and some onsite flooding on June 6. Since that time, NRC has provided round the clock staffing with its Resident Inspectors and they will continue to remain on site and monitor the situation during the flood conditions.

Just last month, two US nuclear plants went into emergency shut down due to outside power loss and a fire in a switchyard adjacent to the plant when tornados tore through the Southeast.  Neither of these two plants were hit directly by a tornado, which would have made containment of the situation much more difficult.  But, scarely.one was discovered, just three months prior to the tornados, to have had issues for as long as nine months with their backup coolant system, which would have made the incident following the tornado much more dire. 

The disaster in Japan has forced numerous countries to re-evaluate the safety of their nuclear fleet of power plants and their ability to respond to safety incidents compounded by natural disasters that make containment more difficult.  Switzerland and Germany have made the decision to pursue other renewable energy sources and to phase out their nuclear units as their licenses come to their end. 

As the US looks at three incidents, in three months associated with natural disasters

  • unusual flooding,
  • what is amounting to one of the most prolific and deadly tornado seasons this country has seen in decades, and
  • a hurricane season that has just come upon us and is predicted to be an above average Atlantic hurricane season according to the most recent forecasts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project (CSUTMP).

In the words of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya punk?”

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We wrote about this a while back, but in case you forgot – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is holding a meeting in Bay City, Texas, today, Thursday, May 19, with representatives of South Texas Project (STP) Nuclear Operating Co., to discuss the agency’s assessment of safety performance for the South Texas Project nuclear power plant located near Bay City.

The meeting, which will be open to the public, is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. at:

Wharton County Junior College
Center for Energy Development
4000 Avenue F
Bay City, Texas.

Click here to read our earlier blog for more details.  If you live within the now infamous 50 mile circle around the nuclear plant, you might want to stop in to ask questions about the safety of this plant and what measures have been put in place to protect you and your family in the event of an accident.

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