Nuclear Reactors

The nuclear industry is more than 50 years old. Its history is replete with a colossal financial disaster and a multitude of near-misses and catastrophic accidents like Three Mile Island and Chornobyl. Beyond Nuclear works to expose the risks and dangers posed by an aging and deteriorating reactor industry and the unproven designs being proposed for new construction.


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Captiol Hill briefing paper on the need for autopsies at decommissioning reactors


Decommissioning nuclear power stations need an “autopsy” to verify and validate safety margins projected for operating reactor license extensions  


The Issue

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the lead organization for the U.S. commercial nuclear power industry, envisions the industry’s “Bridge to the Future” through a series of reactor license renewals from the original 40-year operating license; first by a 40 to 60-year extension and then a subsequent 60 to 80-year extension. Most U.S. reactors are already operating in their first 20-year license extension and the first application for the second 20-year extension (known as the “Subsequent License Renewal”) is before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for review and approval. NEI claims that there are no technical “show stoppers” to these license extensions. However, as aging nuclear power stations seek to extend their operations longer and longer, there are still many identified knowledge gaps for at least 16 known age-related material degradation mechanisms (embrittlement, cracking, corrosion, fatigue, etc.) attacking irreplaceable safety-related systems including miles of electrical cable, structures such as the concrete containment and components like the reactor pressure vessel. For example, the national labs have identified that it is not known how radiation damage will interact with thermal aging. Material deterioration has already been responsible for near miss nuclear accidents.  As such, permanently closed and decommissioning nuclear power stations have a unique and increasingly vital role to play in providing access to still missing data on the impacts and potential hazards of aging for the future safety of dramatic operating license extensions.

The NRC and national laboratories document that a post-shutdown autopsy of sorts to harvest, archive and test actual aged material samples (metal, concrete, electrical insulation and jacketing, etc.) during decommissioning provides unique and critical access to obtain the scientific data for safety reviews of the requested license extensions. A Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) 2017 report concludes, post-shutdown autopsies are necessary for “reasonable assurance that systems, structures, and components (SSCs) are able to meet their safety functions. Many of the remaining questions regarding degradation of materials will likely require[emphasis added]a combination of laboratory studies as well as other research conducted on materials sampled from plants (decommissioned or operating).” PNNL reiterates, “Where available, benchmarking can be performed using surveillance specimens. In most cases, however, benchmarking of laboratory tests will require(emphasis added)harvesting materials from reactors.” In the absence of “reasonable assurance,” it is premature for licensees to complete applications without adequate verification and validation of projected safety margins for the 60 to 80-year extension period.  

Decommissioning is not just the process for dismantling nuclear reactors and remediating radioactive contamination for site restoration. Decommissioning has an increasingly important role at the end-of-reactor-life-cycle for the scientific scrutiny of projected safety margins and potential hazards at operating reactors seeking longer and longer license extensions.                       

The Problem

After decades of commercial power operation,the nuclear industry and the NRC have done surprisingly little to strategically harvest, archive and scientifically analyze actual aged materials. Relatively few samples of real time aged materials have been shared with the NRC.  The NRC attributes the present dearth of real time aged samples to “harvesting opportunities have been limited due to few decommissioning plants.” However, ten U.S. reactors have completed decommissioning operations to date and 20 units are in the decommissioning process. More closures are scheduled to begin in Fall 2018.  A closer look raises significant concern that the nuclear industry is reluctant to provide access to decommissioning units for sampling or collectively share this cost of doing business to extend their operating licenses. Key components including severely embrittled reactor pressure vessels were promptly dismantled by utilities and buried whole without autopsy. Many permanently closed reactors have been placed in “SAFSTOR,” defueled and mothballed “cold and dark” for up to 50 years without the material sampling to determine their extent of condition and the impacts of aging. Moreover, the NRC is shying away from taking reasonable regulatory and enforcement action to acquire the requested samples for laboratory analysis after prioritizing the need for a viable license extension safety review prior to approval. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry license extension process is pressing forward. 

David Lochbaum, a recognized nuclear safety engineer in the public interest with the Union of Concerned Scientists, identifies that nuclear research on the impacts and hazards of age degradation in nuclear power stations presently relies heavily on laboratory accelerated aging---often of fresh materials---and computer simulation to predict future aging performance and potential consequences during license extension.  Lochbaum explains that “Nuclear autopsies yield insights that cannot be obtained by other means.” Researchers need to compare the results from their time-compression studies with results from tests on materials actually aged for various time periods to calibrate their analytical models.According to Lochbaum, “Predicting aging effects is like a connect-the-dots drawing. Insights from materials harvested during reactor decommissioning provide many additional dots to the dots provided from accelerated aging studies. As the number of dots increases, the clearer the true picture can be seen. The fewer the dots, the harder it is to see the true picture.” 

The Path Forward

1) Congress, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the NRC need to determine the nuclear industry’s fair share of autopsy costs levied through collective licensing fees for strategic harvesting during decommissioning and laboratory analysis of real time aged material samples as intended to benefit the material performance and safety margins of operating reactors seeking license extensions, and;

2) As NRC and the national laboratories define the autopsy’s stated goal as providing “reasonable assurance that systems, structures, and components (SSCs) are able to meet their safety functions” for the relicensing of other reactors, the NRC approval process for Subsequent License Renewal extensions should be held in abeyance pending completion of comprehensive strategic harvesting and conclusive analysis as requested by the agency and national laboratories, and;

3) Civil society can play a more active role in the independent oversight and public transparency of autopsies at decommissioning reactor sites such as through state legislated and authorized nuclear decommissioning citizen advisory panels. 



Decommissioning nuclear power plants need an “autopsy” to measure the effects of aging and degradation on safety

Section of Davis-Besse reactor pressure vessel head that was harvested for study of extensive corrosion and " hole-in the head."Beyond Nuclear and two New Jersey groups (Clean Water Action NJ and GRAMMES) have called on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Exelon Generation to conduct an “autopsy” on the Oyster Creek once the nation’s oldest operating nuclear power station  permanently closes in October 2018. During Oyster Creek's decommissioning process, the groups want the federal regulator to oversee a “strategic harvest” of materials from the reactor's safety systems, structures and components to gather observable and measureable scientific data on the effects of aging on the 47-year old reactor.

The operational environment of a nuclear power station is very harsh involving the prolonged exposure of materials to extremely high pressure and temperatures, the bombardment with radiation, vibration, fatigue and corrosion.  Oyster Creek is the first operational GE Mark 1 boiling water reactor in the U.S. fleet of 21 similarly designed reactors still in operation. Oyster Creek's GE design is identical to Japan’s now destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors. The groups assert that an autopsy needs be performed on permanently closed nuclear power plants to collect samples of irradiated steel and concrete from safety-related components and structures for laboratory analysis of the effects of aging on those reactors still operating.  

To date surprising few laboratory samples and archival material has been harvested from closed U.S. reactors.  The Zion nuclear power station in Illinois has harvested samples from the reactor pressure vessel and the Crystal River nuclear power in Florida has provided sections of electrical cable to scientifically exam and measure the effects of aging on safety-related materials to gain insight on residual safety margins and how that relates to similar materials in reactors still operating. For example, samples can be taken from Oyster Creek and then analyzed to better access the material condition of another  Exelon Generation still operating GE Mark I reactor, Peach Bottom, that  extend power operations out to 80 years.

The NRC gave a presentation in 2015 that attributes the present dearth of scientific data points the effects of aging on the lack of reactor sites undergoing decommissioning. Presently, 10 reactor units in the US have completed decommissioning and 20 additional units are in process and potentially for decades yet to come. That same presentation states that in anticipation of strategically harvesting safety-related samples from nuclear power stations, the NRC has already prepared a list of 3863 components (2203 from pressurized water reactors and 1603 from boiling water reactors) for the analysis of 16 different age-related degradation mechanisms. 

However, the industry has been reluctant to cooperate with NRC requests for voluntary harvesting. One criticial opportunity arose in the 1990's when the Yankee Rowe nuclear power station in Massachusetts permanently closed with the discovery of a severely embrittled reactor pressure vessel. During decommissioning, Yankee Atomic Power Corporation declined a request from NRC staff to harvest metal samples from the reactor pressure vessel wall for analysis on embrittlement. Instead, Yankee Atomic decommissioned the reactor, filled the vessel with nuclear waste and low-density concrete and shipped it whole to Barnwell, SC for burial without providing a single sample. 


Earthquakes send “wake-up” calls for nuke hazards at Seabrook and Indian Point

Two separate earthquakes in New York and New Hampshire are significant wake-up calls to address the continued operation of nuclear power plants with existing vulnerabilities and significant radiological hazards at the Indian Point (NY) and Seabrook (NH) stations. On February 7, 2018, an early morning earthquake (2.2 magnitude) rumbled through portions of Westchester and Putnam Counties where the Indian Point 2 & 3 nuclear power station is co-located with a giant fracking gas pipeline, and maybe a pipe-bomb generated by a large earthquake that ruptures the gas line and creates an ignitiion source. Then on Friday February 16th, another tremor (2.7 magnitude) shook portions of southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts around the Seabrook nuclear power station and the concrete containment structure is already crumbling like a bridge overpass. The recent earthquakes under these two reactor sites underscores the money-for-risk we are collectively gambling versus the unacceptable consequences of a severe accident.

Indian Point sits on intersecting fault lines along the Ramapo Earthquake Fault Zone and right next to a 42-inch diameter fracking gas pipeline. The threat of a large earthquake affecting the operations of the nuclear power station and/or its adjacent gas pipeline continues to mobilize public opposition to the combined threat. Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory believes this fault zone can produce a 7-magnitude earthquake. A section of the gas pipeline that traverses the reactor site comes as close as 105-feet to one of the reactor’s critical safety-related structures. Independent analyses estimate an explosion on the high-pressure pipeline could produce a blast radius of 4000-feet. Even though Indian Point is scheduled to cease operations by 2021, the risk of a combined catastrophe exists from thousands of tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste still packed into high-density storage pools, with nowhere to go.  

Nine days later, a 2.7 magnitude earthquake shook the 10-mile emergency planning zone for New Hampshire and Massachusetts communities around the Seabrook nuclear power station.  Seabrook Station is under international scientific scrutiny as the first U.S. reactor to be identified with degradation of safety-related concrete structures including the reactor’s foundation, the pressure containment and its irradiated fuel storage pool, that are damaged and weakened by alkali silica reaction (ASR).  Water intrusion into the concrete structures is chemically reacting with cement compounds to create an expansive gel and microscopic cracking. After nearly 27-years of operation, the age-related cracking has already resulted in an estimated 30% loss of compression and tensile strength in portions of the concrete. Even small earthquakes can accelerate the cracking induced by the chemical reaction further weakening structures vital to containing the inherent danger of nuclear power. Seabrook Station is in the middle of a twenty-year license renewal battle before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A public safety group, otherwise focused on the independent radiological monitoring of the nuclear power station, the C-10 Education and Research Foundation, is challenging the reactor’s operating license extension. C-10 has won standing and contentions before the NRC licensing board for a hearing on safety concerns from unmanaged ASR degradation.Natalie Hildt-Treat, executive director of C-10, was quoted, “You would think a measurable earthquake would put further stress on that,” she said. “Little cracks can lead to bigger cracks ... it’s definitely a safety concern.”


Troubles at Perry nuclear power plant in northeast Ohio, on the Lake Erie shore


[Please note, this document does not save and post in an accessible way; to receive a copy of this document by email, contact Kevin Kamps at Beyond Nuclear:; 240-462-3216. Apologies for the inconvenience, but NRC's document is not in a readily accessible format.].

TMI Alert Press Release - planned closure of Three Mile Island

for immediate release:                                                 Three Mile Island Alert                                  5/30/2017

Contact:  Scott D. Portzline 717-232-8863 and cell 717-421-7574
Three Mile Island Alert suspects that the announcement of Three Mile Island's planned closure is actually an attempted "shot across the bow" of PA's Nuclear Caucus.  It is designed to make the General Assembly pass legislation to rescue nuclear power.
Scott Portzline of TMI Alert said, "Exelon has used this same tactic in the last two years to pressure the states of Illinois and New York to artificially restructure the playing field. The result was tens-of-billions of dollars in bailouts for nuclear plants. This nation has already bailed out the nuclear power fleet on several occasions to the tune of a third of a trillion dollars. Nuclear power is not economically feasible and Wall Street knew that 20 years ago."
Portzline said, "Exelon took a very bad risk and should face the consequences. It was like betting that the mythical Washington Generals would beat the Harlem Globetrotters, it just wasn't going to happen. PA has a surplus of electricity and our taxpayers and ratepayers should not be forced to salvage a doomed decision."
Three Mile Island Alert believes that PA Legislators should pave the way for upstart wind and solar power equipment manufacturers. Pennsylvania could in effect create 20 times more jobs than are lost to nuclear plant closures. Nuclear power releases thousands of tons of chemicals into PA waterways and the mining and processing of nuclear fuel take a heavy toll on carbon releases to the atmosphere. Alternative power does not represent a terrorist target like nuclear reactors do.
Three Mile Island Unit #2 provided electricity for less than 90 days, yet a federal court ordered ratepayers to continue to pay for the destroyed power plant as if it were benefiting the area. TMI Alert believes that Pennsylvanians have already endured too many financial hardships from nuclear power.