Nuke plant safety in dispute

A nuclear engineer says prolonged shutdowns at power plants show safety standards have been allowed to slip. No way, says the industry.

Published September 18, 2006

The nation’s nuclear reactors have been prone to long-term shutdowns that reflect a gradual erosion of industry safety standards, a report by a safety group found Monday.

The study has implications for companies considering new reactors, including Progress Energy’s Florida operation, given the costs involved in any shutdown.

The analysis by David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, counted 51 times that reactors had been closed for a year or more, or one in three of all reactors licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The shutdowns include all three reactors in Florida, including Crystal River.

The history of shutdowns came regardless of reactor age or experience of their managers, the study found.

“Nuclear power is clearly not safe enough when so many reactors have to be shut down for a year or more before they can be restarted,” writes Lochbaum, a longtime adversary of the nuclear industry. “Extended outages are prima facie evidence of how far safety margins have been allowed to erode, making nuclear power more dangerous and costly than necessary.”

The report cites a long shutdown at Progress Energy Florida’s Crystal River reactor from late 1996 to early 1998. In that case, an innocent equipment issue led to the discovery of numerous other problems, including design flaws, even though the plant had been operating for 20 years. Lochbaum said the problems included pumps that, if used in an emergency, would not have worked as intended and piping would have exposed workers and the public to radiation.

Most of the problems were missed during numerous inspections, the report said. The power plant at the time was owned by Florida Power Corp., which was later acquired by Progress Energy.

“Did the plant’s owner bring in busloads of smarter workers after the NRC put the reactor on notice?” the report said.

Lochbaum said he thinks plant inspectors have a safety bias, prone to prove a plant safe rather than uncover problems.

“They’re only as good as the weakest link in the chain,” Lochbaum said in an interview. “The good news is that these problems are flushed out and fixed. But one out of three is too high. Occasionally, one can be explained away. It happens too often.”

Progress Energy and industry leaders criticized the report and said it does not demonstrate any sort of safety breakdown.

“I think our power plant is operating at an extremely high level of safety, and I think any other report that claims otherwise is not being truthful. It’s been 10 years since that shutdown,” Progress Energy spokeswoman Carla Groleau said. She said that episode was the first and only extended safety shutdown in the plant’s history.

In January 2005, Progress Energy said its Crystal River nuclear plant set a new record for electric generation for the fourth straight year.

Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade association, called “bogus” any contention that safety standards have slipped.

And he said the industry has learned from errors in the past and that shutdowns do not provide evidence of future performance, especially since only experienced operators will build new plants.

“The bottom line is, we don’t agree with what they’re talking about,” Singer said.

Thirty-six of those shutdowns were to restore an adequate level of safety by fixing flaws in equipment, procedures or training; 11 were to replace major components required for operations and safety; and four were for damage recovery. Of 130 licensed power reactors, 41 were closed for at least a year. Ten were closed twice.

Lochbaum said the most common reason to close down a reactor was for an “attitude adjustment” for workers and managers, so they would be more attuned to safety.

In the report, he said he has heard the argument that since there hasn’t been even a partial reactor meltdown since Three Mile Island in 1979, then nuclear power is safe.

“That’s as fallacious as arguing that the levees protecting New Orleans were fully adequate prior to Hurricane Katrina by pointing to the absence of similar disasters between 1980 and 2004. … Hopefully, we won’t need a nuclear Katrina to spur the nuclear industry and the federal government into action.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission defended its inspection program, saying inspections today are better and able to more quickly find problems than even a decade ago.

“We are not compromising safety, no,” said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman. “The issues raised by the study are not new to the NRC. Plant shutdowns have diminished. Plants are operating efficiently and safely.”

Extended shutdowns would be a bigger problem for future plants because, in the past, electricity customers of regulated utilities paid for them. But some of the reactor construction projects now being considered would be built as “merchant” plants, with no guaranteed income, only revenue from power sales.

The heart of the problem, Lochbaum said, is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not good at assessing the ability of a reactor staff to keep the plant in good physical condition and maintain training and other requirements.

As a result, he said, plants operate until serious problems accumulate and force a shutdown.

The only reactor currently in an extended shutdown is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Unit 1, in Alabama. It last ran in 1985. The shutdowns at Florida’s other two reactors, at Turkey Point in South Florida and the

St. Lucie reactor near Ft. Pierce, occurred in the early 1980s.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report. William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3436.