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.



Brunswick nuclear plant remains shut down following Hurricane Florence 

The two-unit coastal Brunswick nuclear power station in South Port, NC was powered down to zero power shortly in advance of  the  September 14th arrival Hurricane Florence with Category 1 winds (sustained < 75 mph), storm surge and torrential rainfall. Operators maintained the Brunswick units in “hot standby” (reactor cooling water at 212O F and capable of steam powering onsite turbines for emergency electricity) to provide an added measure of power supply for reactor safety and cooling systems in the event of loss of offsite power and backup emergency diesel generators.  However, throughout the storm, Duke Energy reported that the nuclear power station was in “stable” condition and never lost offsite electricity power from the grid providing primary power to safety systems and cooling.  A low-level emergency was declared September 15th when the reactor site was completely surrounded by rising flood waters making it inaccessible by road. Two shifts of workers were already housed onsite and supplied in advance for the storm’s duration.   Offsite access by road to the Brunswick units was restored on September 18th and the “Unusual event” emergency was terminated.

The continued flooding has damaged many of the bridges and roads within the ten-mile radius that encompasses the radiological evacuation planning zone for the Brunswick nuclear power station. As the flooding recedes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will assess the damage to the infrastructure and will provide its recommendation to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) before Brunswick is allowed to restart.

In advance of Florence’s arrival, a press release from the Union of Concerned Scientists identified that, “There is not a clear picture of either plant’s [flooding] vulnerabilities because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has withheld key flood protection preparedness reports it required in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, where flooding caused three reactor core meltdowns. However, both Brunswick and Surry have had potentially serious problems that their owners may or may not have fixed.” The Brunswick units are both GE Mark I boiling water reactors like Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi units that exploded and melted down following the loss of all power from primary, backup emergency diesel generators and battery power to all reactor safety and cooling systems as a result of an extreme earthquake and tsunami.

As already precedent setting flood levels continue to rise, dams on the Cape Fear River only become more a concern. 


Oyster Creek closure should mark the end of an “error”; prompt more GE shutdowns

The nation’s oldest atomic power plant at Oyster Creek in Lacey Township, New Jersey permanently shut down on September 17, 2018 due to its poor economics and costly post-Fukushima safety retrofits. The 49-year old nuclear plant was the first General Electric Mark I boiling water reactor to go critical in the United States and the world in October 1969. GE globally marketed this reactor design and its lighter “pressure-suppression containment system” as cheaper and quicker to build than its competitors at Westinghouse, Combustion Engineering and Babcock & Wilcox. Japan was one of those countries to buy the GE design and construct its first units at Fukushima Daiichi---where multiple units would later explode and meltdown following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  For the sake of public safety, Oyster Creek’s closure would well mark the beginning of the end of an “error” first identified in a 1972 controversial memo by a top reactor safety official at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Stephen Hanuaer. Hanauer pointed out a design flaw to colleagues, the GE containment design is volumetrically too small to contain the force of a severe accident. He warned, “I recommend that AEC adopt a policy of discouraging further use of pressure-suppression containments, and that such designs not be accepted for construction permits.” There are now 21 GE Mark I reactors still operating in the United States.

Exelon Generation’s termination of Oyster Creek’s “operating license” starts the decommissioning process. The Chicago-based nuclear utility giant has submitted an application for approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to sell and transfer the Oyster Creek “possession only” license to Holtec International, headquartered in Camden, NJ to take over the decommissioning of this facility. Holtec has merged with a Canadian energy corporation, SNC Lavalin, to form Comprehensive Decommissioning Incorporated (CDI) in a bid to corner a growing market to decommission more closing reactors.  The Holtec/Lavalin merger is offering a “proto-prompt” decommissioning strategy to rapidly dismantle the reactors within eight years and containerize the dangerous high-level nuclear waste in dry storage casks onsite.   

However, controversy is already stalking the corporate merger and potentially the reliability of accelerated decommissioning and nuclear waste storage. Holtec International CEO, Krishna Singh, is quoted talking down the ramping up of his Camden headquarters workforce. “‘They don’t show up to work,’ he said. ‘They can’t stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day. They haven’t done it, and they didn’t see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it’s difficult,’” said Singh. In fact, Singh’s disparaging remarks about the workforce sparked public protest at the Camden headquarters.

As reported earlier, SNC Lavalin, headquartered in Montreal, Quebec, is embroiled in a global corruption scandal and criminal charges.  SNC Lavalin and 100 of its subsidiaries have been debarred from contract work with the World Bank for ten years. Former-Lavalin executive are scheduled to go to trial in Canada later this year on fraud and bribery charges.

Exelon Generation has declined to disclose the amount for the proposed sale of Oyster Creek to Holtec International. The transaction will be decided by NRC by the end of 2019. Nearly $1 billion in the reactor's decommissioning trust fund would then be transferred to Holtec.


Links to news coverage of the Oyster Creek, NJ permanent shutdown

The oldest operating atomic reactor in the U.S., Oyster Creek, NJ, has finally, at long last, shut down, for good, after 49 years. The good news? No more risk of reactor meltdown at this Fukushima Daiichi twin design (a GE BWR Mark I); no more radioactive watse generation; and no more cooking of Barnegat Bay (once every six weeks, during operations, the entire water volume of the Bay was passed through Oyster Creek's cooling system, inflicting a half-century of untold ecological harm).

See links to news coverage, below:

Press of Atlantic City


Iowa's only nuclear plant, Duane Arnold, to permanently shut down in late 2020

As reported by The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, IA, as well as KCRG-TV9. The electricity supply will largely be replaced by more cost effective renewables, such as wind power. Duane Arnold, a General Electric Mark I Boiling Water Reactor -- a twin design to Fukushima Daiichi in Japan -- will be 46-years old when it is permanently shut down in late 2020. See Beyond Nuclear's Reactors Are Closing website page.


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.