Category Archives: San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

Don’t blame NRC uncertainty for San Onofre retirement

By Rod Adams

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station never threatened public health and safety. Unit 2 could have been restarted as soon as its scheduled outage was completed in February 2012. Unit 3 could have been restarted by mid-March 2012. The total cost of the repairs, including purchased replacement power, should have been less than $50 million and been covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.

After spending several hundred million dollars in repairs, consulting fees, regulatory fees, and replacement power costs, Ted Craver, the chief executive officer of Southern California Edison (SCE), announced that his company had decided to retire the plant and give up its operating license. He blamed the long, expensive, and uncertain process of obtaining a licensing amendment for the surprising decision.

Craver failed to explain that there was never a legal requirement for SCE, the plant’s primary owner, to introduce the uncertainty of obtaining restart permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. SCE could have confidently fixed the material condition and moved smartly forward in its legal responsibility to provide its customers with reliable, affordable electricity.

Though it is now impossible to roll back time, unspend the hundreds of millions of dollars, and restore the 2100 MW of clean, reliable, electrical power capacity, it is worth the time to learn lessons that might help prevent recurrence of this costly tragedy in the future.

Aside: Some may think that I am melodramatic in labeling the early death of a nuclear power plant as a tragedy, but that technological marvel represented the lifetime labor of thousands of skilled engineers and technicians. It could have provided 14–16 billion kilowatt-hours of emission free electricity for another 28–48 years. I think that losing it qualifies as a tragedy; other people agree with me. End Aside.

On January 31, 2012, operators for San Onofre Unit 3 recognized the indications of a steam generator tube leak and promptly shut down the reactor. The indications and controls system worked as designed and the licensed operators took the correct immediate actions. The estimated leak rate was 75 gallons per day, which is half of the rate that would require operator action.

The radioactivity that set off the alarm came from intensely radioactive, very short-lived material. The primary coolant in an operating reactor is nearly pure water, but some of the oxygen atoms in water (H2O) exposed to a neutron flux will absorb a neutron and become Nitrogen-16, an isotope that rapidly decays (with an 8-second half life) with a high energy gamma emission. Conservative calculations made by the company indicate that the most exposed person would have received a radiation dose of 5.2E-5 millirem from the coolant that leaked before the plant was shut down.

Aside: I have often marveled at the providence of N-16 production in a water cooled reactor. The intense radioactivity forces a conservative shield design with multiple layers of dense material. That radiation shield turns out to be an effective security vault that also provides a substantial amount of protection against physical attack. N-16 also serves as a nearly perfect tracer to provide advanced warning of something like a steam generator tube leak; it is easy to measure but disappears quickly without leaving any damaging residue. End Aside.

Steam generator tube leaks, though not welcome events, are not particularly unusual. Even under the very conservative rules established for nuclear power plant operations, there is an acceptable rate of tube leakage that does not require an immediate shutdown. By design, steam generators are built with more tubes than required so that some can be plugged without reducing the plant’s ability to produce its rated power output.

As long as technical specifications are not violated and plant owners take technically sound measures to repair leaks and prevent recurrence, there is no preexisting legal requirement to ask regulators for permission before taking action and restoring a nuclear plant that has had a steam generator tube leak to full operating status.

Because San Onofre had recently replaced the steam generators in both Unit 2 and Unit 3, the owners were somewhat surprised by the leak. They were keenly interested in determining the extent of the issue and the root cause. After all, installing those replacement steam generators cost the company about $670 million. They were supposed to last for several more decades. (The plant operating licenses were good for another 8–9 years, but there is every indication that the company planned to apply for 20-year license extensions for both units.)

Not surprisingly, individuals and groups that have been fighting nuclear energy in general and San Onofre in particular raised a public outcry. On February 8, 2012, Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Cal.) sent a letter to the NRC demanding that the agency investigate the plant based on what she described as a series of incidents, none of which had any relationship to each other. (Senator Boxer is not only from California, the home of San Onofre, but she is also the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has oversight of the NRC; she has often expressed strong skepticism about nuclear energy.)

On March 13, 2012, NRC Chairman Jaczko responded to Senator Boxer’s letter. That letter is an important piece of history that demands more attention. It provides a clear picture of exactly how tiny the event was and how there was never a risk to public health and safety. Here is a quote:

SONGS operators brought the unit into cold shutdown on February 2, 2012, and began steam generator tube inspections on February 12, 2012. The inspection confirmed the location of the leak was limited to one tube. NRC staff is continuing to review the licensee’s evaluation of the cause of the leaking tube and the licensee’s inspection of 100 percent of the tubes in both steam generators. As in Unit 2, the steam generator tubes will be pressure tested to evaluate their integrity. The root cause of the tube leak has not yet been determined. For both Units 2 and 3, SONGS will evaluate the results of their inspections to determine the appropriate length of time before the next inspection. NRC approval is not required for the licensee to restart Units 2 and 3. NRC inspectors will perform an independent evaluation of the licensee’s operational assessment report and preliminary cause evaluation prior to startup.

(Emphasis added.)

After the leak, SCE solemnly made public statements stating that it was committed to placing its highest priority on safety. As is often the case, it gave the impression that this commitment would best be met by doing everything possible to prevent recurrence of a steam generator tube leak. There is no evidence that anyone in a decision-making position compared the incredibly tiny safety consequences of a tube leak to the negative impact on public health and safety from the electrical power sources that would have to operate because San Onofre was not operating.

On March 23, 10 days after the NRC responded to Senator Boxer’s letter and informed her that the NRC had no legal right to interfere with SCE’s restart, Peter T. Dietrich, SCE senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, wrote a letter describing the actions that the company was going to take to address the conditions found in the steam generators. Even though a 100-percent inspection of the tubes in the steam generators for Unit 2 showed no signs of the tube-to-tube interactions that caused the single tube leak in Unit 3, that letter made the commitment that the company would not restart Unit 2 until the cause of the wear in Unit 3 was determined. It also made the following fateful commitment:

Prior to entry of Unit 2 into Mode 2, SCE will, in a joint meeting, provide the NRC the results of our assessment of Unit 2 steam generators, the protocol of inspections and/or operational limits including schedule dates for a mid-cycle shutdown for further inspections, and the basis for SCE’s conclusion that there is reasonable assurance, as required by NRC regulations, that the unit will operate safely.

(Note: Mode 2 means that the containment is closed and the reactor startup sequence is started. Mode 1 is when the reactor is operating at greater than 5 percent of rated power.)

Though the letter did not explicitly state that the company would ask the NRC for permission before starting up, it handed the NRC the right to schedule the meeting and said that the plant would not start up until after the meeting was held.

On March 27, the NRC responded to Dietrich’s letter with a Confirmatory Action Letter (CAL) that turned the voluntary commitment into a obligation that is still not a legal requirement enforceable by a fine, but that could be enforced with one of several options, including a notice of deviation, an order imposing a legal requirement to meet a commitment, or a demand for information. (Though it contains enough legal language to cause most of us to get a headache, you can read all about the legal status of CALs in the NRC Enforcement Manual starting on page 3-30.)

I’ve been in touch with SCE’s media relations people to find out more about the company’s decision to give the NRC a veto over the company’s ability to operate the plant within the parameters of its existing license. Here is the response I received:

Rod

As you know, the CAL memorializes commitments Southern California Edison made to the NRC regarding San Onofre Unit 2. In addition to the words on those pages, we have committed to the public and all stakeholders to place the highest priority on safety. From the moment we identified indications of potential tube wear issues in Unit 2, we believed it was important to understand the cause and potential scope of those issues before restarting Unit 2. Toward that end, we commissioned three independent experts to analyze the causes of the excessive tube wear and from that research we developed corrective actions to prevent the problem. I believe you are familiar with all those details.

You are correct that a CAL is voluntary and the language in the San Onofre CAL includes our commitment to seek NRC approval prior to restart. If we had restarted without NRC approval, SCE would have deviated from its commitment. If we do not honor such commitments, the NRC can impose more stringent enforcement actions. You could argue that the need for restart approval was a “de-facto” requirement.

Instead of making an expansive commitment, SCE could have confidently addressed the material conditions and firmly asserted that it had performed sufficient actions to provide a reasonable assurance that its valuable nuclear power plant would continue to operate safely. There might have been some resistance and some attempts to apply pressure, including increased regulatory attention, but it is hard to imagine that the increased attention and pressure would have resulted in consequences anywhere close to the complete loss of 2100 MW of emission free power generating capacity and the loss of at least 1500 jobs.

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Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Southern California Edison Announces Plans to Retire San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

Company Will Continue Its Work with State Agencies on Electric Grid Reliability

A conference call with Q&A was held by management at 12PM EST Friday for media outlets only – replay will be available at 1-888-568-0503 (USA) and 1-203-369-3476 (International), passcode 5241.

ROSEMEAD, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)– Southern California Edison (SCE) has decided to permanently retire Units 2 and 3 of its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

“SONGS has served this region for over 40 years,” said Ted Craver, Chairman and CEO of Edison International, parent company of SCE, “but we have concluded that the continuing uncertainty about when or if SONGS might return to service was not good for our customers, our investors, or the need to plan for our region’s long-term electricity needs.”

Both SONGS units have been shut down safely since January 2012. Unit 2 was taken out of service January 9, 2012, for a planned routine outage. Unit 3 was safely taken offline January 31, 2012, after station operators detected a small leak in a tube inside a steam generator manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). Two steam generators manufactured by MHI were installed in Unit 2 in 2009 and two more were installed in Unit 3 in 2010, one of which developed the leak.

In connection with the decision, SCE estimates that it will record a charge in the second quarter of between $450 million and $650 million before taxes ($300 million – $425 million after tax), in accordance with accounting requirements.

After months of analysis and tests, SCE submitted a restart plan to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in October 2012. SCE proposed to safely restart Unit 2 at a reduced power level (70 %) for an initial period of approximately five months. That plan was based on work done by engineering groups from three independent firms with expertise in steam generator design and manufacturing.

The NRC has been reviewing SCE’s plans for restart of Unit 2 for the last eight months, during which several public meetings have been held. A recent ruling by an adjudicatory arm of the NRC, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, creates further uncertainty regarding when a final decision might be made on restarting Unit 2. Additional administrative processes and appeals could result in delay of more than a year. During this period, the costs of maintaining SONGS in a state of readiness to restart and the costs to replace the power SONGS previously provided would continue. Moreover, it is uneconomic for SCE and its customers to bear the long-term repair costs for returning SONGS to full power operation without restart of Unit 2. SCE has concluded that efforts are better focused on planning for the replacement generation and transmission resources which will be required for grid reliability.

“Looking ahead,” said Ron Litzinger, SCE’s President, “we think that our decision to retire the units will eliminate uncertainty and facilitate orderly planning for California’s energy future.”

Litzinger noted that the company has worked with the California Independent System Operator, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission in planning for Southern California’s energy needs and will continue to do so.

“The company is already well into a summer reliability program and has completed numerous transmission upgrades in addition to those completed last year,” Litzinger said. “Thanks to consumer conservation, energy efficiency programs and a moderate summer, the region was able to get through last summer without electricity shortages. We hope for the same positive result again this year,” Litzinger added, “although generation outages, soaring temperatures or wildfires impacting transmission lines would test the system.”

In connection with the retirement of Units 2 and 3, San Onofre anticipates reducing staff over the next year from approximately 1,500 to approximately 400 employees, subject to applicable regulatory approvals. The majority of such reductions are expected to occur in 2013.

“This situation is very unfortunate,” said Pete Dietrich, SCE’s Chief Nuclear Officer, noting that “this is an extraordinary team of men and women. We will treat them fairly.” SCE will work to ensure a fair process for this transition, and will work with the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) and the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers (IBEW) on transition plans for the employees they represent.

SCE also recognizes its continuing safety responsibilities as it moves toward decommissioning of the units. SCE’s top priority will be to ensure a safe, orderly, and compliant retirement of these units. Full retirement of the units prior to decommissioning will take some years in accordance with customary practices. Actual decommissioning will take many years until completion. Such activities will remain subject to the continued oversight of the NRC.

SCE intends to pursue recovery of damages from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the supplier of the replacement steam generators, as well as recovery of amounts under applicable insurance policies.

For updates, please visit www.SONGScommunity.com, or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SCE_SONGS and on www.facebook.com/SCE.

San Onofre is jointly owned by SCE (78.21 percent), San Diego Gas & Electric (20 percent) and the city of Riverside (1.79 percent).

About Southern California Edison

An Edison International (NYSE: EIX  ) company, Southern California Edison is one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, serving a population of nearly 14 million via 4.9 million customer accounts in a 50,000-square-mile service area within Central, Coastal and Southern California.

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San Onofre debate now more public – and more technical

By Will Davis

The debate over the continuing investigations into steam generator U-tube problems at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) last week entered a new phase of heightened publicity and public scrutiny as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) released Mitsubishi documents which detailed that company’s investigations into the root causes of the problems.

Friday, March 8, saw the release of a pair of documents which had been redacted by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) (redaction here means that sensitive corporate information that competitors could use to advantage had been removed).  This followed the revelation within the previous weeks that an original of this document had somehow fallen into the hands of US Senator Barbara Boxer and US Representative Ed Markey, who then touted the documents as a “smoking gun” showing that plant operator Southern California Edison (SCE) had deliberately installed steam generators already known to be bad.  Allegations circulating the internet pointed to a “flawed design by Southern California Edison” and revealed a lack of clarity in the design process for such equipment.  SCE quickly and strongly responded to the allegations.

Allegations in this matter made by Friends of the Earth (FOE) turned out to be, in fact, complete falsehoods.  So it might be best to examine some of the facts surrounding this case and, as one recent San Diego Union Tribune op-ed piece hinted, “let the experts figure it out.”

RSGs and the Process of Replacement

RSG stands for “Replacement Steam Generator,” and the mystery in the public eye surrounding this process seems only to be growing.

In 2004, the owners of SONGS signed a contract with Mitsubishi to build four RSG’s for the two reactor plants on site.  The San Onofre nuclear plants were originally built by Combustion Engineering (CE), which was merged out of existence some years back (Westinghouse is now essentially the lineal descendant).  SCE chose to contract with Mitsubishi, which had been manufacturing steam generators of various types since 1970, to fabricate steam generators for the plants.

In this process, SCE provided to Mitsubishi a set of specifications—design standards to which the equipment had to adhere—for the steam generators.  The specifications address not just size and weight, but a number of more involved details, such as desired materials.  Mitsubishi then began work on a custom design for these plants based on the specifications.  Mitsubishi used as a reference design steam generators it had built as RSGs for Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station—also a Combustion Engineering plant, but smaller than San Onofre.  A typical steam generator from a CE plant is seen below.

In the original conception of pressurized water reactor plants, the replacement of steam generators was not intended.  In these old designs, however, deficiencies became apparent after some time in operation (which varied widely depending on the plant and particular design), so replacement of these massive pieces of equipment had to be considered.  In some cases, such as Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Oregon, replacement was required, but instead the plant shut down permanently and was dismantled when the cost structure and public opinion went against them.  This example has not been the norm; and in fact many plants have replaced steam generators.

The original reactor vendors are not using the same facilities or contracts they did when the plants were newly built. The downsizing of the nuclear manufacturing complex after a new construction sales dropoff in the late 1970s led toward an almost wholesale outsourcing of RSG construction today. For example, since Westinghouse ended fabricating RSGs in the USA, it has used ENSA (Spain), Ansaldo (Italy) and Doosan (South Korea) as subcontractors for RSGs, while other RSGs have been supplied to US utilities by AREVA and Mitsubishi. A counter example to this trend is Babcock & Wilcox, which has a contract to replace Davis-Besse’s steam generators this year, as well as a contract for OEM replacements at TVA’s uncompleted Bellefonte units.

In the earliest steam generator replacements, only parts of the steam generators were replaced, but eventually entire units began to be fabricated.  Eventually, as with any technology, improvements were made in design, and RSGs began to be fabricated with the same new, improved materials—such as Inconel-690 tubes—and techniques that were being employed in steam generators being fabricated for entirely brand-new reactor plants.  Replacing steam generators gave operators an opportunity to incorporate both better materials and better designs; the possibility of uprating could also be realized if more heat transfer area were available in the RSGs.   The NRC, recognizing the need to ensure safety with this as with every other practice in the industry, requires that replacement steam generators comply with a strict code that dictates what can, and cannot, be changed—and requires license amendments be applied for and approved when needed.

The above process, as described, is fully what occurred at San Onofre:  SCE provided specifications to MHI, which then completed detailed design and fabrication of the steam generators.

Design Problems

In October 2012, after discovery of the issues leading to San Onofre’s RSG failure, MHI revealed it had made errors in computer analysis of the steam generator design.  An SCE release provided to this author last October contains the following statement:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) determined that computer modeling used during the design phase by the manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, underpredicted the thermal hydraulic conditions in the steam generators which contributed to the unstable tube vibration.  The unstable tube vibration caused the unexpected wear in the steam generators.

As we are now aware, this is only a part of the story. The phenomenon behind the vibration is called Fluid Elastic Instability (FEI). The real problem that allowed FEI to cause vibration serious enough to wear through tubes has to do much more with fundamental design assumptions and then, later, actual fabrication.

Reading of the linked MHI documents reveals clearly that the problem is partly theoretical, partly physical.  On the one hand, an assumption in force in steam generator design industry-wide has held that “if out of plane FEI is prevented by design, in-plane FEI can not occur.”  This has been proven wrong—at least in the San Onofre steam generators—although it must be stated clearly that this event at San Onofre is the first confirmed occurrence of in-plane FEI known in the industry.

We also see in the report (again, quite clearly) that the design of the Anti-Vibration Bars, which restrain the U-tubes, was slightly modified—and was thought to be improved—in Unit 3.  What actually happened was that making the parts to finer (closer) tolerances reduced their contact force—and thus their ability to restrain the U-tubes—and helped lead to the motion-related impact wear.

Public Relations, and Events Outside Regulatory Action

As might be expected, continuous attention is given this situation by the NRC, which has held numerous meetings, inspections, and public hearings on this issue.  The NRC is tasked with ensuring that the plant is safely operated and that it meets all technical requirements. The NRC certainly appears to be solidly on the job, given the sheer number of Requests for Additional Information (RAIs) that it has issued.

Politics has also become an integral part of this story.  Senator Boxer sent a letter to the NRC stating that she had proof that MHI and SCE knew that the equipment was flawed. The letter was issued prior to any release, or public analysis, of the MHI documents.

In her letter, Boxer “calls on the NRC to promptly initiate an investigation” in the midst of what surely must be one of the most deeply technical investigations in NRC history—or in the history of the manufacture of steam generators.  This clearly reveals a lack of perspective on where the MHI report falls in the path between discovery of the issues and development of a resolution.

In response to this ongoing situation, SCE yesterday issued a press release in which Pete Dietrich, SCE Senior VP and Chief Nuclear Officer, states:

The anti-nuclear activists have called the MHI report a ‘bombshell’ which couldn’t be further from the truth …. In fact, the MHI letter explains that SCE and MHI rejected the proposed design changes referenced in the evaluation because those changes were either unnecessary, didn’t achieve objectives or would have adverse safety consequences. 

Our decisions were grounded in our commitment to safety.  SCE did not, and would never install steam generators that it believed would impact public safety or impair reliability.

SCE goes on to state, “The MHI letter specifically confirms that at the time the replacement steam generators were designed, MHI and SCE believed that {excerpt from MHI report} ‘the replacement steam generators had greater margin against U-bend tube vibration and wear than other similar steam generators’.”

In the release, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Scott Peterson adds that claims by anti-nuclear activist group Friends of the Earth (whose anti-nuclear creed is clearly stated on its home web page) are part of a campaign of moving “from plant to plant with the goal of shutting them down.”  Pointing out the cherry-picked statements that both Senator Boxer and FOE are trying to posit as the ‘proof’ of wrongdoing of SCE, Peterson says: Not providing proper context for these statements incorrectly changes the meaning and intent of engineering and industry practices cited in the report, and it misleads the public and policymakers.”

What’s Next?

This author spoke to SCE’s Jennifer Manfre yesterday about where this continuously evolving situation is headed.  SCE would like to test operate Unit 2 at a  70% power limit for five months, followed by another complete RSG inspection, to assess if the calculational determination that FEI will be avoided here is demonstrated in operation.  Manfre stated that this 70% limit is “very conservative—we set a limit for avoiding FEI, and then set a new arbitrary limit below that to ensure safety, as is always our priority.”

NRC has raised some questions regarding the limit and has asked SCE to be able to demonstrate that the plant is actually safe at 100% power during any of this 70% testing which, as Manfre points out, “goes to the technical specifications for the plant.”  Manfre relates that SCE is preparing to submit, shortly, to NRC its Operational Assessment showing that the plant is indeed safe at 70% and also at 100% for this testing, saying “we essentially did both, to satisfy NRC and technical specifications.”

Manfre also clearly pointed out that the role of SCE in the RSG process is essentially that of being a customer with a required set of specifications, to which a detailed design is completed by a vendor (in this case, Mitsubishi).  SCE did take part in some of the design process (for example, the design of the AVBs) but is not responsible for the overall design of the RSGs.  Mitsubishi, who is responsible, has already begun warranty payments to SCE.

When Manfre was asked to speculate as to what a final resolution to this problem might look like—and was offered examples of a new operating license at a lower power rating to avoid FEI, or physical repairs to the steam generators to allow the full presently-rated power rating—she said we’re not even close to that yet; we need to get through this period of testing.” Anyone in the nuclear industry (and, it might be added, many other industries) can relate to the need to conduct operational testing and analysis before selecting final operational fixes to a complicated technical and physical problem which involves public safety.  Boeing’s problems with the 787 Dreamliner battery fire problem comes to mind as a timely parallel—as does the FAA’s handling of the situation.

Quite clearly with the voluntary release of the MHI documents, the process of investigation has unparalleled transparency for this sort of highly technical matter.  In a February 26 SCE press release, Dietrich says that “this question and answer process is an important part of safety-based technical solutions in the nuclear industry, and it strengthens our ability to communicate to stakeholders the safety principles and proven industry operating experience that the Unit 2 restart plan was built upon,” in reference to the open nature of the NRC Request for Additional Information Process. The latest MHI release builds upon this process.

This open process between plant operator and Federal regulator has now been added to—or, depending on point of view, detracted from—by inclusion in the public domain of releases of sections of the MHI documents taken out of context.   Dietrich, from yesterday’s SCE press release:

As with all engineering evaluations, the MHI letter and report describe a technical evaluation process and need to be read in their entirety to understand the conclusions reached …. The activists are taking portions of paragraphs and sentences out of context, and using them as the basis of their allegations that SCE knew of design defects when the generators were installed, but failed to make changes to avoid licensing requirements.  That is untrue.

Manfre also relates that another ‘next step’ will be the impending full cost summation of the entire RSG process to the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The California PUC is under great pressure politically and must demonstrate that all rate impacts are fair and reasonable.  She also points out an upcoming Atomic Safety & Licensing Board hearing covering the scope of the required license amendments.

All of the developing actions and public Federal regulatory hearings can be found on the NRC’s dedicated San Onofre pages.  Developments and press releases from Southern California Edison on this situation can be found on its own dedicated SONGS website.

[Illustrations of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station courtesy Southern California Edison]

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Will Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society. In addition to this, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

 

 

2012 ~ The year that was in nuclear energy

Plus a few pointers to what’s in store for 2013

By Dan Yurman

Former NRC Chairman Gregory Jackzo

On a global scale the nuclear industry had its share of pluses and minuses in 2012. Japan’s Fukushima crisis continues to dominate any list of the top ten nuclear energy issues for the year. (See more below on Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima.)

In the United States, while the first new nuclear reactor licenses in three decades were issued to four reactors, the regulatory agency that approved them had a management meltdown that resulted in the noisy departure of Gregory Jazcko, its presidentially appointed chairman. His erratic tenure at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cast doubt on its effectiveness and tarnished its reputation as one of the best places to work in the federal government.

Iran continues its uranium enrichment efforts

The year also started with another bang, and not the good kind, as new attacks on nuclear scientists in Iran brought death by car bombs. In July, western powers enacted new sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment program. Since 2011, economic sanctions have reduced Iran’s oil exports by 40 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In late November, the U.S. Senate approved a measure expanding the economic sanctions that have reduced Iran’s export earnings from oil production. Despite the renewed effort to convince Iran to stop its uranium enrichment effort, the country is pressing ahead with it. Talks between Iran and the United States and western European nations have not made any progress.

Nukes on Mars

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is a scientific and engineering triumph.

Peaceful uses of the atom were highlighted by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, which executed a flawless landing on the red planet in August with a nuclear heartbeat to power its science mission. Data sent to Earth from its travels across the red planet will help determine whether or not Mars ever had conditions that would support life.

SMRs are us

The U.S. government dangled an opportunity for funding of innovative small modular reactors, e.g., with electrical power ratings of less than 300 MW. Despite vigorous competition, only one vendor, B&W, was successful in grabbing a brass ring worth up to $452 million over five years.

The firm immediately demonstrated the economic value of the government cost-sharing partnership by placing an order for long lead time components. Lehigh Heavy Forge and B&W plan to jointly participate in the fabrication and qualification of large forgings for nuclear reactor components that are intended to be used in the manufacture of B&W mPower SMRs.

Lehigh Forge at work

The Department of Energy said that it might offer a second round funding challenge, but given the federal government’s overall dire financial condition, the agency may have problems even meeting its commitments in the first round.

As of December 1, negotiations between the White House and Congress over the so-called “fiscal cliff” were deadlocked. Congress created this mess, so one would expect that they could fix it.

The Congressional Budget Office has warned that if Congress doesn’t avert the fiscal cliff, the economy might slip into recession next year and boost the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, compared with 7.9 percent now. Even record low natural gas prices and a boom in oil production won’t make much of a difference if there is no agreement by January 1, 2013.

Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima

Japan’s major challenges are unprecedented for a democratically elected government. It must decontaminate and decommission the Fukushima site, home to six nuclear reactors, four of which suffered catastrophic internal and external damage from a giant tsunami and record shattering earthquake. The technical challenges of cleanup are daunting and the price tag, already in the range of tens of billions of dollars, keeps rising with a completion date now at least several decades in the future.

Map of radiation releases from Fukushima reported in April 2011

  • Japan is mobilizing a new nuclear regulatory agency that has the responsibility to say whether the rest of Japan’s nuclear fleet can be restarted safely. While the government appointed highly regarded technical specialists to lead the effort, about 400 staff came over from the old Nuclear Industry Safety Agency that was found to be deficient as a deeply compromised oversight body. The new agency will struggle to prove itself an independent and effective regulator of nuclear safety.
  •  Japan has restarted two reactors and approved continued construction work at several more that are partially complete. Local politics will weigh heavily on the outlook for each power station with the “pro” forces emphasizing jobs and tax base and the anti-nuclear factions encouraged by widespread public distrust of the government and of the nation’s nuclear utilities.
  • Despite calls for a phase out of all nuclear reactors in Japan, the country will continue to generate electric power from them for at least the next 30–40 years.
  • Like the United States, Japan has no deep geologic site for spent fuel. Unlike the United States, Japan has been attempting to build and operate a spent fuel reprocessing facility. Plagued by technical missteps and rising costs, Japan may consider offers from the United Kingdom and France to reprocess its spent fuel and with such a program relieve itself of the plutonium in it.

U.S. nuclear renaissance stops at six

The pretty picture of a favorable future for the nuclear fuel cycle in 2007 turned to hard reality in 2012.

In 2007, the combined value of more than two dozen license applications for new nuclear reactors weighed in with an estimated value of over $120 billion. By 2012, just six reactors were under construction. Few will follow soon in their footsteps due to record low prices of natural gas and the hard effects of one of the nation’s deepest and longest economic recessions.

The NRC approved licenses for two new reactors at Southern’s Vogtle site in Georgia and two more at Scana’s V.C. Summer Station in South Carolina. Both utilities chose the Westinghouse AP1000 design and will benefit from lessons learned by the vendor that is building four of them in China. In late November, Southern’s contractors, which are building the plants, said that both of the reactors would enter revenue service a year late. For its part, Southern said that it hasn’t agreed to a new schedule.

The Tennessee Valley Authority recalibrated its efforts to complete Watts Bar II, adding a three-year delay and over $2 billion in cost escalation. TVA’s board told the utility’s executives that construction work to complete Unit 1 at the Bellefonte site cannot begin until fuel is loaded in Watts Bar.

The huge increase in the supply of natural gas, resulting in record low prices for it in the United States, led Exelon Chairman John Rowe to state that it would be “inconceivable” for a nuclear utility in a deregulated state to build new reactors.

Four reactors in dire straights

In January, Southern California Edison (SCE) safety shut down two 1100-MW reactors at its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) due to excessive wear found in the nearly new steam generators at both reactors.

SCE submitted a restart plan to the NRC for Unit 2 in November. The review, according to the agency, could take months. SCE removed the fuel from Unit 3 last August, a signal that the restart of that reactor will be farther in the future owing to the greater extent of the damage to the tubes its steam generator.

The NRC said that a key cause of the damage to the tubes was a faulty computer program used by Mitsubishi, the steam generator vendor, in its design of the units. The rate of steam, pressure, and water content were key factors along with the design and placement of brackets to hold the tubes in place.

Flood waters surround Ft. Calhoun NPP June 2011

Elsewhere, in Nebraska the flood stricken Ft. Calhoun reactor owned and operated by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), postponed its restart to sometime in 2013.

It shut down in April 2011 for a scheduled fuel outage. Rising flood waters along the Missouri River in June damaged in the plant site though the reactor and switch yard remained dry.

The Ft. Calhoun plant must fulfill a long list of safety requirements before the NRC will let it power back up. To speed things along, OPPD hired Exelon to operate the plant. In February 2012, OPPD cancelled plans for a power uprate, also citing the multiple safety issues facing the plant.

In Florida, the newly merged Duke and Progress Energy firm wrestled with a big decision about what to do with the shutdown Crystal River reactor. Repairing the damaged containment structure could cost half again as much as an entirely new reactor. With license renewal coming up in 2016, Florida’s Public Counsel thinks that Duke will decommission the unit and replace it with a combined cycle natural gas plant. Separately, Duke Chairman Jim Rogers said that he will resign at the end of 2013.

China restarts nuclear construction

After a long reconsideration (following the Fukushima crisis) of its aggressive plans to build new nuclear reactors, China’s top level government officials agreed to allow new construction starts, but only with Gen III+ designs.

China has about two dozen Gen II reactors under construction. It will be 40–60 years before the older technology is off the grid. China also reduced its outlook for completed reactors from an estimate of 80 GWe by 2020 to about 55–60 GWe. Plans for a massive $26-billion nuclear energy IPO (initial public offering) still have not made it to the Shanghai Stock Exchange.  No reason has been made public about the delay.

India advances at Kudanlulam

India loaded fuel at Kudankulam where two Russian built 1000-MW VVER reactors are ready for revenue service. The Indian government overcame widespread political protests in its southern state of Tamil Nadu. India’s Prime Minister Singh blamed the protests on international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

One of the key factors that helped the government overcome the political opposition is that Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited told the provincial government that it could allocate half of all the electricity generated by the plants to local rate payers. Officials in Tamil Nadu will decide who gets power. India suffered two massive electrical blackouts in 2012, the second of which stranded over 600 million people without electricity for up to a week.

Also, India said that it would proceed with construction of two 1600-MW Areva EPRs at Jaitapur on its west coast south of Mumbai and launched efforts for construction of up to 20 GWe of domestic reactors.

India’s draconian supplier liability law continues to be an effective firewall in keeping American firms out of its nuclear market.

UK has new builder at Horizon

The United Kingdom suffered a setback in its nuclear new build as two German utilities backed out of the construction of up to 6 Gwe of new reactors at two sites. Japan’s Hitachi successfully bid to take over the project. A plan for a Chinese state-owned firm to bid on the Horizon project in collaboration with Areva never materialized.

Also in the UK, General Electric pursued an encouraging dialog with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to build two of its 300-MW PRISM fast reactors to burn off surplus plutonium stocks at Sellafield. The PRISM design benefits from the technical legacy of the Integral Fast Reactor developed at Argonne West in Idaho.

You can’t make this stuff up

In July, three anti-war activitists breached multiple high-tech security barriers at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Y-12 highly enriched uranium facility in Tennessee. The elderly trio, two men on the dark side of 55 and a woman in her 80s, were equipped with ordinary wire cutters and flashlights.

Y-12 Signs state the obvious

The intruders roamed the site undetected for several hours in the darkness of the early morning and spray painted political slogans on the side of one of the buildings. They were looking for new artistic venues when a lone security guard finally stopped their travels through the plant.

The government said that the unprecedented security breach was no laughing matter, firing the guards on duty at the time and the contractor they worked for. Several civil servants “retired.” The activists, if convicted, face serious jail time.

None of the HEU stored at the site was compromised, but subsequent investigations by the Department of Energy found a lack of security awareness, broken equipment, and an unsettling version of the “it can’t happen here” attitude by the guards that initially mistook the intruders for construction workers.

The protest effort brought publicity to the activists’ cause far beyond their wildest dreams and produced the predictable uproar in Congress. The DOE’s civilian fig leaf covering the nation’s nuclear weapons program was once again in tatters.

So long Chu

Given the incident at Y-12, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who came to government from the quiet life of scientific inquiry, must have asked himself once again why he ever accepted the job in Washington in the first place.

DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu

Chu is expected to leave Washington. That he’s lasted this long is something of a miracle since the Obama White House tried to give him the heave ho this time last year after the Solyndra loan guarantee debacle, in which charges of political influence peddling by White House aides colored a half a billion dollar default on a DOE loan by a California solar energy company.

The predictable upswing in rumors of who might be appointed to replace him oozed into energy trade press and political saloons of the nation’s capital.

Leading candidates are former members of Congress, former governors, or just  about anyone with the experience and political know how to take on the job of running one of the federal government’s biggest cabinet agencies. It’s a short list of people who really can do the job and a long list of wannabes. With shale gas and oil production on the rise, having a background in fossil fuels will likely help prospective candidates.

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Dan Yurman published the nuclear energy blog Idaho Samizdat from 2007–2012.

San Onofre reactors face divergent paths to restart

Southern California Edison submits a plan to the NRC for Unit 2

By Dan Yurman

 The twin 1100-MW nuclear reactors (Units 2 & 3) at Southern California Edison’s (SCE) San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) that have been shut down since January 2012 will take different paths to a decision to restart each of them.

On October 3, Southern California Edison submitted a response to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s confirmatory letter, and a restart plan for Unit 2.

The utility said, however, that it won’t submit a similar response and restart plan for Unit 3 until mid-2013.  In late August SCE said it would remove the fuel from Unit 3, a clear signal that any restart plan for it is well down the road.

(The documents submitted by the utility to the NRC are online at http://www.songscommunity.com )

No timetable for review

The NRC said in response that there is no timetable for review of the restart plan for Unit 2. NRC Chairperson Allison Macfarlane told Reuters on October 4, “Our inspections and review will be painstaking, thorough, and will not be rushed.”

NRC Regional Administrator Elmo Collins said on October 9 that the restart plan could require an amendment to the Unit 2 reactor operating license, a process that could last months or even years.

Anti-nuclear groups have pressed the NRC to address the restart plan with a license amendment. The groups claim that the utility should have asked for the license amendment in the first place when it installed the steam generators.

NRC’s Collins also said that the NRC is still considering penalties against SCE over the generator issues.

Costs of shutdown considered serious

Three weeks after the technical response to regulators proposing to restart one of the reactors, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted unanimously to consider whether or not ratepayers should pay for repair costs and the additional costs of replacement power.

The review could take several years. By the time the PUC makes up its mind, mid-to-late 2014, both reactors could be back in revenue service.

PUC Chairman Mike Florio said that prior rate reviews are not predictors of how the agency will deal with SCE. He said that “serious errors” have been made by the utility, and he added that the PUC might take preliminary action to reduce rates and/or order refunds sometime in early 2013.

SCE said last July that restart of Unit 2 would cost $25 million in addition to the $48 million it had spent since January on inspections and repairs. Also, it had, as of July, paid out another $117 million to buy replacement power while the reactors were out of service.

These costs have increased since then. The LA Times reported on October 4 that replacement power costs had climbed to $142 million.

SCE has said that it will seek to recover the costs of the prolonged outage from insurance and from Mitsubishi, which supplied the steam generators used at San Onofre. The Japanese firm has denied that a computer error in the design phase of the steam generators was to blame for excessive tube wear.

Computer model and tube wear

Both reactors were safely shut down in January 2012 after excessive wear was discovered on the tubes in the almost-new steam generators.

SCE said in its response to the NRC Oct 3 that the tube wear was caused by a phenomenon called “fluid elastic instability”, a combination of high-steam velocity and low-moisture conditions in specific locations, combined with the impacts of ineffective tube supports at the same locations.

The damage to the tubes in the steam generator at Unit 3 was more extensive than at Unit 2.

One of the root causes of the troubles with the steam generators is that a computer model developed and used by Mitsubishi significantly underestimated key factors involving the flow of steam through the units.

SCE said on its website, “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) determined that computer modeling used during the design phase by the manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, under-predicted the thermal hydraulic conditions in the steam generators which contributed to the unstable tube vibration. The unstable tube vibration caused the unexpected wear in the steam generators.”

Elements of Unit 2 restart plan

SCE’s restart plan for Unit 2 calls for the utility to operate it at 70 percent power, which SCE says will prevent the vibration-causing environment by decreasing steam velocity and increasing moisture content. After five months, SCE will shut down Unit 2 to inspect the steam generator tubes, to confirm that this solution is working as anticipated.

SCE Chief Nuclear Officer Pete Dietrich told the Associated Press on October 4 that the restart plan “is not an experiment.” He said the utility has conducted 170,000 tube inspections and has held technical reviews with independent experts to evaluate the situation.

With regard to Unit 3, Dietrich said that Unit 3 has significantly more of the excessive wear on its steam generator tubes. He told the LA Times that it would be “next summer” before SCE is ready to propose a restart plan for it.

Anti-nuclear groups oppose restart

Anti-nuclear groups were divided about SCE’s restart plan for Unit 2. Arnie Gundersen, who has been working as a consultant to Friends of the Earth, said that the group thinks the restart plan isn’t credible. And S. David Freeman, also a consultant to Friends of the Earth, said, “Both reactors are alike and neither is safe to operate.”

David Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, was less strident, however, in expressing his opinion. He said that although he is not convinced that the 70 percent power level for Unit 2 is the right number, he recognized that SCE planned to install better monitoring equipment.

On October 10, the NRC’s Collins rejected Gundersen’s harsh characterization of the restart plan. He said, “It is far from a done deal. We will take the time we need. We do not experiment with safety.”

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Dan Yurman is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

NRC Public Meeting on San Onofre: October 9 via Webcast, Twitter

Note: The NRC public meeting on San Onofre steam generator issues has now adjourned. The webcast will soon be available in archived form at http://video.nrc.gov/. The twitter feed featuring participation by groups on all sides of the issue can be viewed HERE (tweets will eventually expire).

WHEN:

Tuesday, October 9
6:00-9:30 P.M. Pacific Time
Click HERE for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) news release with schedule information

VIRTUAL ACCESS

The meeting is now live on webcast at: http://video.nrc.gov.

A phone bridge will be available by calling: 1-888-989-4359 and entering pass code 1369507.

The webcast and phone bridge will be one-way only.

SOCIAL MEDIA ACCESS

ANS will live-tweet the hearing at @ans_org using hashtag #SanOnofrePlease note that the person(s) doing the live-tweeting will be watching via webcast.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Click HERE for social media coverage by Will Davis of Atomic Power Review of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station steam generator issues, including a roundup of helpful links at the end of the entry.

Click HERE for a wealth of information from Southern California Edison regarding the San Onofre steam generator issues.

ALERT: NRC Public Meeting on San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station Issues

AMERICAN NUCLEAR SOCIETY (ANS)
COMMUNICATIONS & OUTREACH ALERT

NRC Public Meeting on San Onofre Nuclear
Generating Station Issues

WHEN:

Tuesday, October 9
6:00-9:30 P.M. Pacific Time
Click HERE for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) news release with schedule information

WHERE:  

St. Regis Monarch Beach Hotel
One Monarch Beach Resort
Dana Point, California
Click HERE for Local Area Directions and Map Links

WHY:

The NRC is holding a public meeting that includes a facilitated roundtable discussion regarding the safe operation of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Click HERE for a collection of background information and data from Southern California Edison, the majority owner/operator of the San Onofre station.

There is public interest about the steam generator tube degradation issues at San Onofre Units 2 and 3. Nine participants have been named to represent public interests in the roundtable discussion. Two of the nine are ANS national members (but are not representing ANS on the panel):

  • Ted Quinn, representing Californians for Safe and Clean Nuclear Energy
  • Ken Schultz, PhD, representing himself as a local citizen

ANS members and other nuclear professionals play an essential role in providing credible information in a public setting to increase public awareness and to put relative risks into context. If you live in the area, your presence and participation in this meeting will help to ensure that a credible scientific and technical perspective on this important issue is conveyed in a public setting.

VIRTUAL ACCESS:

The meeting will be webcast live at: http://video.nrc.gov.

A phone bridge will be available by calling: 1-888-989-4359 and entering pass code 1369507.

The webcast and phone bridge will be one-way only.

SOCIAL MEDIA ACCESS:

ANS will live-tweet the hearing at @ans_org using hashtag #SanOnofre. Please note that the person(s) doing the live-tweeting will be watching via webcast.

Click HERE for social media coverage by Will Davis of Atomic Power Review of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station steam generator issues, including a roundup of helpful links at the end of the entry.

For further information, ANS members can contact Laura Scheele, Communications & Policy Manager, ANS Communications & Outreach Department.