Nuclear Power Plants Should Be Closed and Autopsied, Not Resuscitated

(Photo: Tony Webster)(Photo: Tony Webster)

The Trump administration recently announced another desperate push to prop up the only new US nuclear power plant construction project still in play — at Plant Vogtle, Georgia. But the reality for nuclear power is that it is on a downward slide toward extinction.

US Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently awarded an additional $3.7 billion in federal loan guarantees to the over-budget and behind schedule project at Vogtle — on top of the $8.3 billion in subsidies the project has already received.

Six US reactors — at five sites — have closed since 2013. Seven more remain on target to close within the next eight years, some of them as soon as 2019. A handful more had announced planned shutdowns, then received bailouts to prolong their existence, even though the plants are uneconomical and in dangerously degraded states due to aging and other factors. Wear and tear is a concern with any aging technology, but the risk factor goes up dramatically when nuclear power plants, filled with radioactive materials, are at issue.

Given the complexity of nuclear plants, their aging parts, rubber-stamped operating license extensions and their vulnerability to catastrophic failure, it makes sense to examine the “dead” reactors for a more reliable safety assessment of the potential failings of the “living” reactors. But the nuclear industry and its regulator, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), has successfully avoided this common-sense safety procedure for decades. Given the regularity with which US nuclear reactors are shutting down — a statistic that will likely only increase over time — we have quite a few closed reactors already, and plenty more in the pipeline. This is a perfect opportunity to conduct a full investigation into the extent of decay inherent in the nuclear plants still running.

Nuclear Reactors Can Cost More to Decommission Than to Build

When reactors close, they don’t just disappear. They must be decommissioned. This is a long, complicated and, above all, outrageously expensive process. For example, the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Plant in Massachusetts, which operated from 1960 to 1992, cost $39 million to build. Its decommissioning took 15 years and cost $608 million.

Vermont Yankee, shuttered at the end of 2014, is currently looking at a price tag of at least $1.24 billion in decommissioning costs. But this is an estimate from its owner, Entergy. The real figure could be a lot higher.

Decommissioning involves the removal and, theoretically, the decontamination of equipment, structures and portions of the facility containing radioactive contaminants. This allows the property to be released from NRC oversight and terminates the NRC license. The high-level radioactive waste, essentially the irradiated nuclear fuel, currently has nowhere to go and remains on site in dry storage casks. But decommissioned sites can remain radioactively contaminated long after the reactors close. One such example is Big Rock Point on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, where plutonium-239 is still to be found in the high-level wastes and radioactive contamination at the site.

The NRC has, for example, never denied a license extension to an operating reactor, no matter how blatant the safety risks.

To date, the decommissioning of a US reactor does not include an examination of the site and materials. Instead, the evidence of the effects of aging and material degradation are buried with the dismantled reactor. This “autopsy” could reveal those effects and provide potentially life-saving insights into the risks run by operating reactors. Furthermore, it would also verify (or dispute) quality assurance documentation for the fabrication process of installed safety-related nuclear components.

For example, it is now known that 17 of our operating nuclear reactors contain key safety parts that might be dangerously flawed. These large components were manufactured at the French Le Creusot forge, which was not only caught producing and selling substandard components, but tried to cover up its loss of quality control as well. This revelation resulted in the shutdown of 17 French reactors with Creusot components late last year as well as the forge itself, which was only reopened in July.

Fortunately, one of the US reactors that reportedly has a Creusot part is now permanently closed — the Crystal River nuclear generating station on Florida’s west coast. An autopsy of Crystal River would not only provide safety insights into the potential jeopardy at the 17 reactors still operating with suspect Creusot parts, it would also deliver general intelligence about the state of our entire operating reactor fleet.

An autopsy would take an enhanced look at the remaining material integrity of safety-related structures and components, particularly those that are difficult to reliably assess in operating reactors. This would include destructive analysis by cutting up large components like the reactor pressure vessel for an assessment of radiation-induced cracking, embrittlement and stress corrosion cracking. Sections of the concrete containment and “spent” nuclear fuel storage structures could be tested for the same aging effects that weaken concrete in bridges and dams.

Captured Regulators May Not Act to Examine Flaws in Closed Reactors

Rest assured no such examinations will happen voluntarily. One of us, Paul Gunter, now with Beyond Nuclear, joined 10 safe energy groups in 1995 to petition the NRC to conduct autopsies on embrittled reactor pressure vessels at the permanently closed Yankee Rowe, Trojan, San Onofre and Rancho Seco nuclear power stations.

The groups wanted the NRC to archive material specimens and set a benchmark on age-degradation for the rest of the operating industry. The NRC and industry didn’t want to know and rejected the petition.

This would seem to contradict the NRC’s mandate, proclaimed on its website as “protecting people and the environment.” Behind closed doors, the agency instead works tirelessly on behalf of the nuclear industry, protecting the corporate bottom line with almost evangelical zeal. The NRC has, for example, never denied a license extension to an operating reactor, no matter how blatant the safety risks. In December 2015, the NRC relicensed the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio, despite the worsening cracking of the containment, without requiring the owners to repair a flaw so serious that a containment failure could lead to a meltdown.

Such capitulations have only one agenda — to save the nuclear industry money. Decommissioning costs are already so burdensome that Entergy is looking at a decommissioning option called SAFSTOR for its Vermont Yankee plant, which would essentially mothball the reactor for 60 years. By then, Entergy — already struggling financially — could be long gone, dodging the gigantic decommissioning bill altogether.

In order, therefore, not to demand expensive fixes of an industry in financial freefall, the NRC has a stellar track record of not enforcing its own safety orders, even though these might actually protect people and the environment. But the bigger cost that the NRC is seeking to avoid is the truth.

An autopsy might scientifically reveal just what a perilous, pre-meltdown condition most of our nuclear power plants are in. Such evidence would expose the NRC’s reckless bias in allowing US reactors to operate without essential safety fixes. It’s a gamble that saves the industry money, but which could cost thousands of lives or more.

Such revelations would also put a serious dent in the NRC’s efforts to extend the operating licenses of its remaining reactor fleet out to 60 and even a terrifying 80 years as the agency is now planning to do.

And the safety vulnerabilities uncovered by an autopsy might actually frighten people. They would start to question whether nuclear power was actually as safe as the NRC and the industry say it is, especially when they learn just how many things could go wrong. They might actually see the industry’s “safe and reliable” mantra for the lie that it is.

That’s exactly the kind of publicity the NRC and the industry don’t want. It’s this cost, more than that of the autopsy itself, that they are really trying to avoid. Because, for an inherently dangerous industry, the price of the truth is just too high.