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Published: Saturday, 10/2/2010

NRC stalls key repairs for 32 years

Imagine driving around in a car with an air bag you know is probably defective.

The car runs fine. Its brakes work. Its seat belts snap in place.

Is it worth putting off repairs to one of your last lines of defense?

Apparently the nuclear industry believes so.

For an incredible 32 years now, the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have failed to agree on a plan for fixing clog-prone containment sumps at 37 of America's 104 nuclear plants.

Those sumps are an important part of a plant's emergency core cooling system, a collection of devices designed to work in tandem with each other to shut down the reactor and avoid a catastrophic nuclear meltdown in the event of a major accident.

The Union of Concerned Scientists cites a Feb. 14, 1978, letter from then-NRC Chairman Joe Hendrie to President Jimmy Carter as one of the federal government's earliest known references to the problem.

The NRC has reaffirmed several times since then that sumps at certain plants have been at risk of becoming overwhelmed by paint chips, insulation, and other free-floating debris that would form if an accident occurred. If those sumps fail, there wouldn't be anything recirculating water to cool the reactors.

NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko acknowledged Wednesday the agency “has been grappling with this issue for quite some time now.”

That's an understatement. More than 18 years elapsed before regulators finally showed signs of getting serious about it in September of 1996. Then, they began drawing up plans for what's known as Generic Safety Issue 191, an industrywide requirement to make the long-overdue sump fixes.

Since then, it's been another 14 years of talking.

Some, naturally, believe the NRC has caved in to industry pressure again. Others believe it simply has been in denial.

NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said in an e-mail to The Blade last week that “the overall risk from this issue was low to begin with.”

But David Lochbaum, a long-time nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former NRC employee himself, said the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, plus BP's historic Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are “other low probability, high consequence events.”

Add to that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, and the 1979 half-core meltdown of Three Mile Island Unit 2.

“It's tempting to view a potential accident of very low probability and justify not taking steps to fix it rapidly,” Mr. Lochbaum wrote.

Translation: Does anyone really plan for a worst-case scenario when they don't accept it could happen?

What does the NRC's inaction on this issue mean in the big picture for America's 104 aging nuclear plants?

Unlike automobiles, nuclear plants are not traded in every five or six years.

What does it mean for the credibility of government regulators? And for a nuclear industry that pins its hopes for a renaissance on less bureaucratic oversight and more authority to police itself?

This is one time FirstEnergy Corp. is ahead of the curve. It became one of the nation's first utilities to fix its old containment sump during Davis-Besse's record two-year outage from 2002 to 2004.

The NRC required that fix for Davis-Besse to resume operation.

It's not like FirstEnergy made the repair a priority; to the contrary, the utility admitted to the NRC that it had a “profits-over-safety” mentality just before the 2002 outage. The company also fought efforts in the fall of 2001 to shut the plant down early because of safety issues some NRC staffers had raised.

The near-rupture of Davis-Besse's old reactor head was harrowing enough. Radioactive steam would have likely formed in a flash if the bulge in the lid's liner had burst. What ratcheted up the significance of that incident was the probability that the old containment sump would have clogged and failed, likely making any such accident much worse.

Mr. Jaczko said that a resolution to the generic problem nationwide “has proven to be a Herculean task.”

“This is an example of the quintessential safety issues that are at the heart of our mission,” he said. “It is critical that the Commission provide clear direction to the staff on how to resolve this issue in a timely manner.”

Yes, in a timely manner. Thirty-two years later.

Contact Tom Henry at:thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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