Thursday, July 19, 2012

Nuclear Power Plants Pushed to Produce, Safety Often Disregarded

Majia here: Craig sent me this story below from the Washington Post. It is a must read because it examines how aging nuclear power plants in the US are being pushed to produce more power.

Operating at higher output levels produces more pressure on these aging plants' machinery and therefore creates significant safety risks.

However, a culture of retaliation against workers who disclose safety risks exists at some nuclear power plants.

In particular, San Onofre, a plant in southern California located in an earthquake zone on the ocean, has a sordid history of abuse against whisteblowers. So extreme have been the abuses there, that they have even been noted by the too-often complicit NRC.

The upshot: Aging nuclear power plants in the US are being pushed for the sake of profits, further endangering us all.

What follows documents this argument, beginning with the Washington Post article about pushing nuclear power plants to produce more power:

How to expand nuclear power without attracting (too much) attention. The Washington Post. By Brad Plumer on July 18, 2012 at 11:49 am

[Excerpt] "Since the 1970s, construction on new nuclear reactors in the United States has largely ground to a halt, thanks to public protests, regulatory obstacles and tight financing. Yet over that same period, U.S. utilities have managed to increase the amount of electricity they get from nuclear power. By quite a lot, in fact.

How is that possible? Through a process known as “uprating.” According to a new analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the operators of 98 of the country’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors have asked regulators for permission to boost capacity from their existing plants. All in all, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved more than 6,500 megawatts worth of uprates since 1977....

....In recent years, however, nuclear operators have started applying for much larger “extended uprates,” which can increase the output of a plant by as much as 20 percent. This process can include big changes to high-pressure turbines and other equipment. Or it can involve using more potent fuel in the reactor core...."

[end excerpt]

Majia here: The Post article above mentions a previous analysis of uprating conducted by the Los Angeles Times:

U.S. is increasing nuclear power through uprating. Los Angeles Times April 17, 2011By Alan Zarembo and Ben Welsh.

[Excerpted] Turning up the power is a little-publicized way of getting more electricity from existing nuclear plants... 

The power boosts come from more potent fuel rods in the reactor core and, sometimes, more highly enriched uranium. As a result, the nuclear reactions generate more heat, which boils more water into steam to drive the turbines that make electricity.

Tiny uprates have long been common. But nuclear watchdogs and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's own safety advisory panel have expressed concern over larger boosts — some by up to 20% — that the NRC began approving in 1998. Twenty of the nation's 104 reactors have undergone these "extended power uprates."

...In an uprated reactor, more neutrons bombard the core, increasing stress on its steel shell. Core temperatures are higher, lengthening the time to cool it during a shutdown. Water and steam flow at higher pressures, increasing corrosion of pipes, valves and other parts.

"This trend is, in principle, detrimental to the stability characteristics of the reactor, inasmuch as it increases the probability of instability events and increases the severity of such events, if they were to occur," the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, which is mandated by Congress to advise the NRC, has warned.

Majia here: The LA Times article goes on to say that the NRC has approved uprates and that additional safety modifications counter risks. Right.

Let us consider for a moment how safety works at a plant like San Onofre that was recently shut down because severe corrosion was discovered posing significant safety risks.

San Onofre's cloudy future. June 24, 2012. The Los Angeles Times:,0,3489562.story

[Excerpted] "On Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission provided a troubling assessment of the situation at San Onofre. A flaw in the design of the new generators — which cost ratepayers $671 million to build — appears to be responsible for making their tightly bundled tubes vibrate too much and rub together. The result is an alarming level of wear in equipment that is still in its relative infancy, especially in Unit 3, where, according to NRC officials, the damage reaches a level far beyond what's been seen before in this nation's nuclear industry. The rupture of one or more tubes could release radiation."

Majia here: San Onofre nuclear power plant has a very poor history and in fact the NRC chastised the plant operators for creating a hostile culture for workers reporting safety violations at the plant:

[excerpted] "San Onofre, which has been out of commission for more than four months because of equipment problems, was chastised two years ago by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for creating an atmosphere in which employees fear retaliation if they report safety concerns." (,0,4968112.story)

This article on the San Onofre nuclear power plant's hostile culture notes that whistleblowers at the plant are NOT protected by federal law because the plant sits on land owned by the Marine Corp:

Title of article: "San Onofre whistle-blowers less protected than others in California
The nuclear power plant is in a so-called federal enclave, where courts have held that many California laws, including labor laws intended to protect whistle-blowers, do not apply" Los Angeles Times by Abby Sewell July 4, 2012,0,4968112.story

Majia here. The article provides an example of retaliation against whistleblowers at the plant:

[Excerpted] "Edward Bussey, a former health physics technician at the plant, sued Edison in state court after he was fired in 2006 under what he said were trumped-up charges that he had falsified initials on logs documenting that certain materials had been checked for radiation. Bussey contended that he was really fired in retaliation for complaining about safety concerns to his supervisors and the NRC."

Majia here: Great. So, what we have here is a situation in which nuclear power plants are being run into the ground in order to produce more power than they were designed to in order to enrich operators and shareholders.

AND Whistleblowers can face retaliation and whistleblowers at facilities on government land or owned by government have little recourse.

1 comment:

  1. I’ve been watching, commenting and attending meetings etc. regarding the Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan. Here are some things you may be interested in reading as they relate to what you are saying in your post.
    From Beyond Nuclear:
    My Blog: scroll down to “Where does safety culture truly begin?”


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