Group seeks delay of Shippingport nuclear plant’s relicensing decision
Beaver County TimesSaturday September 26, 2009 08:55 PM
A Pittsburgh-based energy advocacy group wants the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to delay a final decision on the licensing renewal process for Beaver Valley nuclear reactor Units 1 and 2, concerned about corrosion in a reactor containment liner.
“We’re not optimistic, frankly,” David Hughes, executive director of Citizen Power, said Thursday. “Not because we don’t believe our concerns don’t have merit, but we’re not confident with the NRC.”
A final decision had been expected Monday. But Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, said Friday that timetable has been pushed back, as the NRC plans to release another report on the liner issue. A final decision could now come in early November, Sheehan said.
History is on the side of Akron-based FirstEnergy, owner of the reactors, and against Citizen Power. According to NRC records, a license renewal request has never been refused, with more than half of the 104 reactors across the country seeking license renewals in the last decade.
And the process cleared a big hurdle last week, with the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards recommending the license renewal.
The Atomic Energy Act and NRC regulations limit nuclear reactor licenses to 40 years, but licenses can be renewed.
To obtain a renewal, reactor owners must prove to the NRC that the reactor can operate safely for an additional 20 years.
Beaver Valley Unit 1’s 40-year operating license won’t expire until January 2016. Unit 2’s license expires in May 2027, but FirstEnergy is seeking early renewals for both, extending the licenses to 2036 for Unit 1 and 2047 for Unit 2.
As part of the process, reactor owner FirstEnergy is required to show how it would continue to operate the aging reactors safely through the period of the licenses. The safety evaluation report addresses several areas, including examination of equipment, employee training and how a plant’s age could affect equipment.
The relicensing process lasts between 22 and 30 months.
According to NRC records, most of the process to relicense the Beaver Valley reactors moved forward smoothly.
But that was before an April discovery that raised some eyebrows.
On April 24, a small hole about the size of a standard paper clip was found in the 3/8-inch lining of the containment building of Unit 1, which had been shut down for routine maintenance and refueling.
FirstEnergy officials blamed the corrosion on a piece of wood apparently left behind during construction of the reactor.
The hole was repaired and the reactor safely restarted in May. FirstEnergy and the NRC said there was no release of radiation outside the building and public safety was never threatened.
Ted Robinson, Citizen Power’s attorney, said Thursday that, “We don’t think anyone has a good idea of the current idea of the condition of the liner,” and said that testing FirstEnergy has done isn’t adequate.
“I think they need to do an examination now to determine the actual state of the liner,” Robinson said.
Robinson said there are six subatmospheric reactors, including Beaver Valley 1 and 2, in the United States, ones in which the inside pressure of the reactor is much less than the pressure on the outside.
Robinson said liner corrosion was found in three of the reactors and that there are too many unanswered questions as to why that corrosion occurred.
According to the industry newsletter Inside NRC, Beaver Valley stopped operating its reactors in subatmospheric conditions in 2006.
Schneider disagreed with Citizen Power’s position, saying that what was found in April “was not a case of general corrosion. It was related to a specific cause,” the piece of wood. “The inspection process found the problem, it was repaired and tested, and we returned the plant to normal operation.”
Schneider said that like Citizen Power, FirstEnergy is taking the liner issue very seriously. The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards report said that FirstEnergy should do comprehensive testing during refueling outages scheduled for later this year and in 2010.
“We agree, and we are. We will be doing more stringent testing,” Schneider said. “That’s our commitment to ensure containment liner integrity is maintained.”
STAMP OF APPROVAL
In a report dated Sept. 16, the reactor safeguard advisory committee, an independent group that consults with the NRC, said the license renewal should be granted.
Its report addressed the corrosion issue extensively, saying that corrosion was also found on a lining weld in the Unit 1 liner in 2006. Then, according to the ACRS, FirstEnergy upgraded its inspection procedures, and the ACRS recommended further changes in light of the corrosion discovery earlier this year.
The new report said that additional inspections before the licenses expire should ensure public safety.
“We conclude that the proposed inspection programs and related commitments provide reasonable assurance that liner integrity will be adequately maintained during the period of extended operation,” the ACRS report said.
Hughes, of Citizen Power, said that ACRS members were “asking good questions” of FirstEnergy representatives in July, as part of the ACRS report.
In a more recent meeting, Hughes said, “ ... answers expected from July weren’t forthcoming. Suddenly everything is OK? They gave a stamp of approval without addressing questions we raised.”
Sheehan said license renewal applications such as Beaver Valley’s undergo “thousands of hours for review of the applications. If they don’t meet the test, they will not be granted a license extension.”
He said that when the corrosion issue arose, “We devoted a lot of inspection resources getting to the bottom of it.”
The ACRS “gave it a full airing, subjected it to a lot of technical interrogation, and in the end, is satisfied the appropriate steps are being taken,” Sheehan said.
The NRC’s Web site has said for months that a final decision on the license renewal would be issued Monday.
On Friday, however, Sheehan said that the NRC staff needs more time so that it can issue a supplemental safety evaluation report on the corrosion issue; Sheehan said he did not know what the report would say.
An additional ACRS meeting during the process also affected the schedule, Sheehan said.
“There’s a lot that goes into this process,” Sheehan said. “Sometimes just looking at the end results might not convey all the work that goes into these reviews.”
Hughes said he wasn’t prepared to say what action his group would take. He said the group couldn’t legally stop the decision but could take legal action afterward.
“We would have to show harm, that the NRC extended the license and endangered the public,” Hughes said. “We have exhausted all of our remedies at the agency. We have to be straightforward here. We’re not a party to the relicensing proceeding, but that wouldn’t make any difference. We’ve filed and raised concerns.”
And those concerns, Hughes said, are serious.
“They have a very, very serious problem at that plant, and it’s not the first time this has occurred,” Hughes said.
“There is the potential to harm the public, and they should make every, every effort to prove this is not a design flaw in Beaver Valley, and they’re not doing it,” Hughes said.
For additional information about the Beaver Valley relicensing, go to www.nrc.gov.