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Archive for Thursday, March 31, 2011

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko IDs Wolf Creek nuclear power plant as one of three ‘we are most concerned about’

The Wolf Creek nuclear power plant, which went online in 1985, is shown in this Jan. 11, 2000, photograph.

The Wolf Creek nuclear power plant, which went online in 1985, is shown in this Jan. 11, 2000, photograph.

March 31, 2011

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— Three U.S. nuclear power plants need increased oversight from federal regulators because of safety problems or unplanned shutdowns, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Thursday, although officials said all are operating safely.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said the three plants — in South Carolina, Kansas and Nebraska — "are the plants we are most concerned about" among the 65 U.S. nuclear power plants in 31 states.

Jaczko did not identify the plants, but an agency spokesman said they are the H.B. Robinson nuclear plant in South Carolina, Fort Calhoun in Nebraska and Wolf Creek in Kansas.

An NRC spokesman said three reactors at the Oconee Nuclear Station in South Carolina had been on the watch list, but were removed two weeks ago after improved performance reviews.

The NRC stressed that all 104 U.S. nuclear reactors operate safely, and that the heightened review of the three plants was routine.

"The NRC felt the three required significant additional oversight but continue to operate safely," said Scott Burnell, an agency spokesman.

All U.S. nuclear plants are inspected frequently. If enough minor problems or issues are identified, a plant moves to a second level of inspection, Burnell said.

Items that aren't resolved in a reasonable time -- or new items of higher significance -- can move a plant to a third level of closer inspection and oversight. That is where the three plants in South Carolina, Kansas and Nebraska are listed, Burnell said.

The agency has two higher levels of concern for even more serious problems: one where senior NRC management becomes involved and a final level where a plant is shut down until officials determine it is safe to reopen. No U.S. plants are currently listed in either category.

Jaczko told a House energy panel the NRC has very strong safety program. The panel was meeting to review the agency's budget and safety concerns in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan.

Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., said he was not worried about the NRC's safety program.

"What about the condition of the reactors?" he asked. "Are they safe enough?"

Jaczko said that "right now, we have very good performance from the actual reactors," but then said there were six reactors in need of more intensive review.

"Those are the plants we are most concerned about," he said. "With the exception of those six plants, the remaining plants are operating with safety margins, and again all of the plants are meeting our safety requirements."

Burnell and other agency officials said the six reactors Jaczko referred to included three at Oconee, which were recently taken off the watch list.

Nine of the 104 U.S. reactors are listed in the second, minor level of concern, Burnell said.

Comments

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

Hey, folks, has the JW and other news media been sitting on this?

I checked the NRC website and they said this about Wolf Creek:

"Degraded Cornerstone Column Wolf Creek is in Column 3 because of two white Initiating Events Cornerstone PIs (Unplanned Scrams per 7000 Critical Hours in 1Q2010 and Unplanned Scrams with Complications from 3Q2009 through 1Q2010). Wolf Creek also has a white Mitigating Systems Cornerstone PI (Safety System Functional Failures) from 1Q2010 through 3Q2010."

Reporters, it's time to get on the stick! If you're not being told to keep a lid on this, of course. At this point, no news is big news, so admit the cat is out of the bag and start digging. The NRC website search showed that there was a flurry of reports that came out back last September, and there have been replies and requests going back and forth ever since.

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

No one has been "keepign a lid on this." The fact is no one cared before the tsunami incident.

The fact is Wolf Creek's degraded NRC status comes from its many shutdowns over the past year. A nuclear power plant shuts itself down automatically at the slightest change in its operation. The events that can cause this vary from as serious as an earthquake to the tiniest system anomaly. Even certain electrical fuses being just a few degrees too hot, which caused one of their five or six shutdowns, will trip the plant. In a trip, or SCRAM, all the control rods are immediately inserted and power is brought to zero in a matter of seconds so that the situation can be resolved safely. To put this in perspective, some nuclear submarines are said to trip multiple times daily on purpose to train personnel.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

That doesn't explain why Wolf Creek and only two other nukes have been placed on heightened oversight. If this were as commonplace as you are suggesting then they would not have the degraded status. Your comparison to submarine multiple daily shutdowns is clearly wrong as they are not even close to being equivalent in terms of a submarine trip being as serious of an issue as one at Wolf Creek..

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

Commercial reactors are placed under higher public scrutiny than a nuclear submarine, if a plant trips they need to make sure there isn't a problem. The NRC doesn't allow plants to operate unsafely, Wolf Creek is simply under further oversight. That is what degraded cornerstone means. The plant isn't falling apart, they are just subject to a performance review to make sure everything is operating smoothly.

It's like if a kid gets straight A's his whole life and gets a C on a report card. Mom wants to know why, so she watches her kid until she finds the problem and fixes it.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

There are 104 nuclear reactors in the US and only 3 are at this heightened level of concern, Wolf Creek being one of them. That's more like the kid has been doing fine but then gets in a fight, makes a threat and stops going to school. This kid is not just in trouble with Mom.

My concern is that if I have a fuse that trips the switch over and over again in my house, I call an electrician to see if there is a short in the wiring that is causing the problem. I'd like to hear definitively that the problem is being addressed at the wiring level, not just putting a copper penny in the fuse box so that the fuse stops blowing.

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

You seem to be misunderstanding the NRCs system. To use your example, a fuse blowing in a house and the significance of that fuse compared to the house remains the same: The NRC will not allow plants to run unsafely so they would never get to a "put a penny in it" situation. At none of these plants has the "fuse" even blown yet, it got a little hot once and the NRC would make sure an entire team of electricians backed by a group of electrical engineers to replace the wiring before the fuse ever blows.

And this is the equivalent of a C. Your argument is that only 3 plants in the US have this level of oversight. If all of the plants in the US are getting straight As, and three get a C once, thats still 3 plants with a C. Just because they are 3/104 doesn't downgrade that C to an F just because there is such a small number of them. If you look at the NRC's scale of oversight, it really is sort of a C these plants have recieved until they resolve their issues.

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

Essentially what I'm saying is while its not good for the 3 plants to be in this NRC level, its no cause for major concern. If things get too bad the NRC has no problem shutting a plant down, check out the Sequoyah plant where the NRC shut them down for three years until they got their act together.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

I agree that things are not to the level of Sequoyah at Wolf Creek, but you continue to make light of the seriousness of the issues that have given Wolf Creek a degraded cornerstone rating. A "C" grade implies that normal expectations are met and these are clearly not the case with Wolf Creek.

Here's what the KC Star said about it today:

"While backup systems operated correctly after the power loss, the NRC noted a “high pressure spike” in the essential service water pumps blew a 3/8 -inch diameter hole in the piping. Those pumps could be called on to cool the reactor core in an emergency, the Union of Concerned Scientists said."

"The NRC noted that an internal study two years earlier had forecast such a breach, and noted that one had actually occurred in 2008. The NRC later sanctioned Wolf Creek for having failed to correct the problem."

“When you predict a safety problem and then have that prediction validated the following year, you have little excuse for continuing to ignore it,” said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists."

"Lochbaum said the NRC concerns have prompted what is called a “supplemental inspection” in which the commission “sends a team of inspectors to Wolf Creek to determine whether events over the past year were isolated events coincidentally occurring around the same time or were manifestations of deeper problems caused by budget cuts, loss of safety focus, or other reasons.”

"Contributing to Wolf Creek’s power grid problems, the NRC found, was division of responsibility over the plant. Officials found Wolf Creek personnel had little responsibility for the plant’s electrical switchyard, which actually rested with Westar Energy."

"The Union of Concerned Scientists also noted that, according to NRC reports, there had been 31 power line interruptions since 2004, but that workers failed to enter 20 percent of them into the corrective action program."

"Westar spokesman Mark Schreiber confirmed Thursday that Westar is responsible for the electrical switchyard and grid reliability. Schreiber added that Westar and Wolf Creek have since revised procedures to improve communications between the two groups."

"Additional NRC concerns included the firm not adequately evaluating the damage caused by internal corrosion. Operators also failed to control the water level in the steam generator after a reactor shut down. The NRC classified both violations as within acceptable limits."

"Uselding, the NRC spokeswoman, said the agency relies on four levels of nuclear plant oversight, with the fourth being the most serious."

"Wolf Creek and the other two plants are at the third level, called “degraded cornerstone,” which means that safety issues are not resolved in a reasonable amount of time, or there are new items “of somewhat higher significance.”

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

But none of this is any concern to us. Does it matter, at least to the average citizen. No, because if the NRC's experts thought that the situation was bad enough then the plant would be on the forth level of oversight or the FIFTH level which isn't oversight, its shutdown.

They are in this level because they have had problems and they cant get out of it by fixing them.

"While backup systems operated correctly after the power loss, the NRC noted a “high pressure spike” in the essential service water pumps blew a 3/8 -inch diameter hole in the piping. Those pumps could be called on to cool the reactor core in an emergency, the Union of Concerned Scientists said."

They are replacing the aging ESW piping at this very moment.

"The NRC noted that an internal study two years earlier had forecast such a breach, and noted that one had actually occurred in 2008. The NRC later sanctioned Wolf Creek for having failed to correct the problem."

So Wolf Creek has to fix the corporate situation that led to this problem. The NRC has shut down plants before because of issues like, yet worse than this, such as plants where workers fear retribution for reporting concerns.

“When you predict a safety problem and then have that prediction validated the following year, you have little excuse for continuing to ignore it,” said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists."

Totally agree, if the environment in the corporation that allowed this to happen is not fixed, then they can't operate the plant safely and the NRC will shut them down.

"Lochbaum said the NRC concerns have prompted what is called a “supplemental inspection” in which the commission “sends a team of inspectors to Wolf Creek to determine whether events over the past year were isolated events coincidentally occurring around the same time or were manifestations of deeper problems caused by budget cuts, loss of safety focus, or other reasons.”

Already happened, in Feburary, see KCTV5s article today.

"Contributing to Wolf Creek’s power grid problems, the NRC found, was division of responsibility over the plant. Officials found Wolf Creek personnel had little responsibility for the plant’s electrical switchyard, which actually rested with Westar Energy."

Wolf Creek still has little responsibility as do most plants. The problem was, Westar, who does have responsibility for it and the problem let it happen through lack of maintenance. The improved communication and changed things like having Wolf Creek engineers overseeing Westar's maintenance crews.

"The Union of Concerned Scientists also noted that, according to NRC reports, there had been 31 power line interruptions since 2004, but that workers failed to enter 20 percent of them into the corrective action program."

If this is an important statistic to nuclear safety, which I believe it is, what do you bet the NRC got on these plants about this already?

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

"Westar spokesman Mark Schreiber confirmed Thursday that Westar is responsible for the electrical switchyard and grid reliability. Schreiber added that Westar and Wolf Creek have since revised procedures to improve communications between the two groups."

See above.

"Additional NRC concerns included the firm not adequately evaluating the damage caused by internal corrosion. Operators also failed to control the water level in the steam generator after a reactor shut down. The NRC classified both violations as within acceptable limits."

First part is ESW, being fixed now, see above. Second part is why the NRC exists: to make sure plants can't get away with situations that could make them less safe.

"Uselding, the NRC spokeswoman, said the agency relies on four levels of nuclear plant oversight, with the fourth being the most serious."

Four levels of oversight. Five cornerstone levels total. The fifth isn't an oversight level, its shutdown. This article also states that.

"Wolf Creek and the other two plants are at the third level, called “degraded cornerstone,” which means that safety issues are not resolved in a reasonable amount of time, or there are new items “of somewhat higher significance.”

In other words, Wolf Creek needs to get its act together because if they don't they will be shutdown. The level at which the NRC shuts down a plant is far from the level at which a disaster is likely. Its called margin of safety. These "degraded cornerstones" happen. Thats why the NRC exists! They judge a plant based on its performance, and if they are worried they have the power to shut it down. Wolf Creek is nowhere near that level and to say otherwise is false and fear-mongering.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

Your point-by-point comment only confirms the opposite of what your first paragraph says:

As "an average citizen" who also happens to be someone who lives directly downwind from the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant, I have a lot of concerns about this situation, and there are plenty of others with the same concens when:

-the NRC tells me that they have had to tell Wolf Creek to replace their emergency backup plumbing which blew from a predicted pressure spike during a shutdown;

-that the corporate culture at WC contributed to blowing off the need to correct such problems;

-that the power spike was at least partially caused because there is ambiguity in the relationships and who is responsible for what between the two companies that produce the power and receive the power;

You bet I'm glad that the NRC stepped in and said that this culture of ignoring known problems is not acceptable. But you and I know how complex a nuclear power plant on a transmission grid is. If the culture of blowing off concerns exists at Wolf Creek, why aren't management issues being addressed? If 20% of the incidents were not even written down, where's the supervisor that let this slip by? Where's the backup emergency director during the two years that the predicted problem existed and wasn't addressed until the pipe blew? And why was it that the CEO of the plant allowed this stuff to fester unaddressed? Was he not aware of it? And if so, what else is he or she not aware of? Or was he ignoring a problem because fixing it would cost too much and he felt the need to keep costs down?

So as an average Joe, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about this situation, and so far I haven't heard enough to know whether the situation has been addressed enough to prevent further problems. Big accidents are paved with lots of little oversights, and these are exactly the kinds of little oversights that I'm talking about. How many more are there, and how much confidence do I have that the right management is in place to find and address them?

Richard Heckler 3 years, 9 months ago

Nuclear Power Is Not Clean or Green!

No contemporary energy source is as environmentally irresponsible, imposes such a high liability on taxpayers, or is as dangerous as nuclear power. Industry efforts to "greenwash" nuclear energy make a mockery of clean energy goals. Although nuclear reactors do not emit carbon dioxide, promoting nuclear risks to reduce greenhouse emissions is the classic jump from the frying pan into the fire!

The Real Dirt on "Clean" Nuclear Energy

* The mining, milling and enrichment of uranium into nuclear fuel are extremely energy-intensive and result in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

* Estimated "energy recovery time" for a nuclear power plant is about 10 to 18 years, depending on the richness of uranium ores mined for fuel. This means that a nuclear power plant must operate for at least a decade before all the energy consumed to build and fuel the plant has been earned back and the power station begins to produce net energy. By comparison, wind power takes less than a year to yield net energy, and solar or photovoltaic power nets energy in less than three years.

* The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has calculated that collective radiation doses amounting to 12 cancer deaths can be expected for each 20-year term a reactor operates, as a result of radioactive emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle and routine reactor operations. This calculation assumes no unplanned accidents and does not consider radiation releases from high-level nuclear waste "disposal" activities. Nor are nonfatal health impacts related to radiation exposure counted in this tally.

* Thermal pollution from nuclear power plants adversely affects marine ecosystems. "Once-through" cooling systems in use at half the U.S. nuclear reactors discharge billions of gallons of water per day at temperatures up to 25 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the water into which it flows.

Flap Doodle 3 years, 9 months ago

You are forgetting that attribution thing again, planet-killer merrill. Plagiarism is causing deadly spiders to move into new territories.

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

I'm all for more wind power! But... Without nuclear power we will have to build more coal plants which put out more radiation and pollution than nuclear plants (Surprise! Coal contains radioactive isotopes since it also comes from the ground. Burning it releases them into the air.). This is because wind power is not always available for base power but its great as a supplement! Even solar can not be relied upon for base power since, well, it requires the sun.

We will build more coal plants if we do not build more nuclear fission plants. Thats reality for you. It would be great to rely on the sun and the wind for all our needs but in the 20-30 year time frame we have, thats not going to happen. One day, when we have further developed solar power and nuclear fusion plants (great because they don't produce long lived isotopes, essentially the second they turn off there is no radioactivity or need to cool decay heat) we can rid ourselves of coal and nuclear fission. But for now, unless you want rolling blackouts (no one is going to allow this) we are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils: Coal or fission?

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

Currently, Kansas needs neither new coal nor new nukes, and that's because there is not enough new demand to require building a new centralized power plant of either kind. Given the fact that new energy efficient appliance standards and more emphasis is being placed on energy efficient building construction, it seems entirely reasonable to provide any need for new power with renewables. Don't believe me? Check out the numbers.

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

I believe you but what do we do when Wolf Creek decommissions?

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

And what do we do in the rest of the country when plants start decommissioning, a process that is only a few years away at many plants?

20% of electrical power in the US comes from nuclear fission. What are we going to replace it with?

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

That's a simple question with a complex answer, Alex. For background, a nuclear power plant still needs to have folks willing to invest in the bonds to finance the project, and a the new nukes planned for Georgia are already at 8 billion dollars each. After Fukushima, how much would you be willing to be that the price tag will go up a few billion? The price of conventional nuclear plants, or Generation 3 Plants, is just not an attractive investments, even with all of the huge subsidies thrown at it by the Federal government.

Seems to me that as investors and utilities start pushing the pencil, more and more of them are going to be looking at the returns on efficiency programs and decide to go that way. I know that it's hard to see how it will be attractive to spend money to not sell energy, but that problem is an artifact of the structure of public utilities, and some innovative programs are being developed where it can be possible for utilities to get a return on their energy savings investments. Once the kinks on this kind of structure are worked out, I think you'll find that cutting energy waste will help finance the next generation of power plants, much of which will be from a network of renewables, a smarter transmision grid, etc.

There is currently quite a bit of excess generation capacity in many parts of the US. For instance, Excel in Colorado has 800MW of excess capacity in addition to its 16% reserves. Sadly, the poor state of transmission lines is forcing them to build new capacity in the Denver area because that capacity can't be transferred where it is needed. This is the kind of thing that will be the focus in the future of energy production, I believe, and I think that the investment community may very well continue to decide that building new nukes is a very risky path and will continue to back off from them at least until the next generation of nuke design becomes viable in a few decades. By that time, it may be that a smarter grid, wind and solar energy innovations will make it a moot point.

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

A smarter grid sounds like the way to go, I'll have to do some more research into it. I agree with most of your statements Doug, but I don't believe that the costs are going to rise because of Japan.

That may sound ridiculous and counter intuitive but look at what exactly happened in Japan. The earthquake caused all operating reactors to scram immediately, which from what I've read happened successfully without any complications. What got them is the tsunami after the quake was 10m high, and unfortunately their tsunami wall was only 6m high. It took out their off-site power lines and the giant emergency diesels would have to kick in to power the reactor cooling pumps or any of their emergency backup pumps. Well the diesels also got swamped by the tsunami. And we know the rest of the story....

What I'm saying is this: A higher wall of concrete and the plant would have been fine. It survived the earthquake even though it was designed for a quake of lower magnitude, thank you factor of safety! All our plants in the United States are designed to withstand any quake that geologists think could occur in every few thousand years. I've read somewhere that wolf creek is set up with a quake of 6.something in mind. Even if the paranoia is so high that people are afraid of "lake tsunamis" at wolf creek or any other new plant, a concrete barrier isn't going to cost 2 billion. San Onefre and Diablo Canyon will probably get higher barriers, but its not going to cost billions either.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

The NRC has already asked for a comprehensive review of all safety protocols in existing plants and said that what is learned from the Japan scenario is going to be incorporated into all future plants. Translation: we're talking about a top to bottom review that will end up with new protocols with way more involved than just building higher tsunami walls. This will result in higher costs and delays, translating to hundreds of millions if not billions--you heard it here first.

Second point: the nukes proposed in Texas were designed by Tepco (Tokyo Electric). Who's going to invest in plans from a company that is about to go under and be nationalized? Translation: higher costs and delays. You can bank on it (altho no bank in their right mind will bank on those nukes!).

AlexTJ 3 years, 9 months ago

Texas - They're still in the approval stages. There are more designs than Tepkos they can use. Plus any design they do use will involve passive emergency cooling which is able to remove decay heat without offsite power.

The rest of it is going to be simpler than you think. Most plants are already designed to withstand an event of biblical proportions such as a 7 pointer hitting Burlington, Kansas. You could design one to withstand a 10 pointer if you wanted but who's going to still be alive in the immediate area to care?

I'll tell you right now -- apparently I'll be the first one to say it. What the NRC is doing now is reverifying emergency procedures and having plants take the emergencies they previously thought wouldn't be likely to happen and draw up new plans of action for if they did. What is Wolf Creek going to do more than it already has? It's designed to withstand: an earthquake thats never going to happen, a huge tornado, the lake suddenly drying up or a dam breaking, a terrorist hijacking, sudden loss of power, as well as any sort of sabotage.

This will be a verification of what plants are already designed to do, nothing more.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

You are the master of "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" downplaying of a situation. You make it sound like it's easy to switch designs and designers in the midst of the approval stage of building a nuclear power plant. Not likely.

Translation: guaranteed delays and increased costs. My money is on the press release that announces that these plants have been delayed and the cost estimate has been bumped up. Time will tell whether you or I are right, no?

Ken Lassman 3 years, 9 months ago

Just out of curiosity, I decided to google the situation in Texas, and here's what I found:

Tepco: Work on Texas nuclear power plant "difficult" to continue

Published: Mar 31, 2011

"Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it would be difficult to continue working to develop a Texas nuclear reactor in a joint venture between NRG Energy Inc. and Toshiba Corp."

"On the South Texas project, I think there are questions in the United States about whether it should be continued, and we, too, have financial difficulties, so it's hard to continue the project," Tokyo Electric Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency."

"Reuters said in March 2011 that work has been halted on the $10 billion proposed South Texas Project in the wake of the crisis at Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. Last year, Tepco agreed to invest $155 million for a 10 percent share in units 3 and 4 at the South Texas project."

So the delay is guaranteed. When will the other shoe going to drop: increased costs? It might be a while: they will have to find another contractor willing to shell out $155 million plus to cover Tepco pulling out, plus all of their services. But it will cost more, as sure as the sun rises in the east.

ksjayhawk74 3 years, 9 months ago

Don't worry, even if something terrible does happen at Wolf Creek, that's a good 80 miles away. 80 miles is way too far away to possibly affect us here in Lawrence.

related article...

"Nuclear Energy Advocates Insist U.S. Reactors Completely Safe Unless Something Bad Happens" http://www.theonion.com/articles/nuclear-energy-advocates-insist-us-reactors-comple,19740/

AlexTJ 3 years, 7 months ago

Funny, Wolf Creek just got moved back to the NRCs corner 1, in other words "good standing." Looks like I was right and they fixed their issues.

AlexTJ 3 years, 7 months ago

I also doubt the LJWorld will print even a sentence about it once its officially released and people will go on living in fear.....

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