Watchdog proposes Beaver County nuke plant re-licensing delay

By Kim Leonard

Friday, May 29, 2009

The discovery in April of a small hole in the steel liner of a building that contains one of the Beaver Valley Power Station's nuclear reactors has prompted a watchdog group to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review safety-test procedures.

Citizen Power, based in Squirrel Hill, petitioned the agency this week to hold off on relicensing the two nuclear reactors at the plant in Shippingport while an investigation is conducted. NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said Thursday that the request will be reviewed.

Plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron said some corrosion and a perforation roughly the size of a paper clip were discovered during routine checks April 24 while the plant's Unit 1 was taken down for refueling.

The problem in the layer of steel -- about 3/8 of an inch thick -- was fixed, and Unit 1 is back in operation, spokesman Todd Schneider said.

Ted Robinson, staff attorney for Citizen Power, said the organization wants the commission to look at whether requirements for visual checks of liners and occasional pressure tests are enough to detect leaks in aging plants such as Beaver Valley -- where corrosion was found and repaired in 2006.

"There are different types of tests they could do," he said.

FirstEnergy is seeking federal approval to run power-generating Units 1 and 2 until 2036 and 2047, respectively. Their original 40-year licenses run out in 2016 and 2027. An official with the commission is expected to issue a decision in late September.

"As far as Beaver Valley goes, it's not that we want to stop the license-renewal process," Robinson said. "We want to make sure the proper reviews are in place."

Citizen Power's petition contains a statement from Arnold Gundersen, an adviser with Burlington, Vt.-based Fairewinds Associates, a consulting firm that deals with nuclear issues. Gundersen contended that differences in pressure between the outside air and conditions inside Beaver Valley's reactor might have drawn moisture through the 3-foot-thick concrete building to voids and wood next to the liner.

Gunderson urged that more testing be done and wrote that "an in-depth analysis of the corrosion problems that exist between the liner and the porous concrete may uncover systemic failure mechanisms" that put public health at risk.

First Energy's Schneider said the interior conditions that Gundersen cites no longer exist at the plant, but Citizen Power's Robinson said the corrosion found last month might have been developing for years.

Some blistering paint was the first sign of a problem, Schneider said, and further inspection and ultrasonic tests found a small perforation.

"It was caused by a piece of wood that had been embedded in the concrete and was touching the liner," he said.

A section of the liner was cut out and replaced with steel plate and was tested according to the commission's requirements, he said.

The NRC's Sheehan said an in-house panel will review Citizen Power's petition and provide a response within 120 days.

FirstEnergy handled the situation properly, Sheehan said. The review of FirstEnergy's relicensing request, submitted in August 2007, is fairly far along, and the commission hasn't found any issues so far that would preclude approval, he said.