Although improper coatings application has previously caused problems at the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant, newer coatings are apparently providing protection that will keep the plant operating for a few more years.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia has upheld the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's April 2009 decision to renew the operating license for the Oyster Creek plant in Lacey Township, NJ, for 20 years.
Five environmental and citizens’ groups had contended that the NRC lacked sufficient information to determine whether the 700-acre plant could continue to operate safely. The plant began operating in 1969, making it the oldest U.S. commercial reactor still in service.
|Oyster Creek is the oldest of the 140 commercial nuclear plants currently operating in the U.S.|
The NRC’s licensing approval followed years of opposition by the groups and state officials, who contended that corrosion in the plant’s dry well shield raised concerns about the facility’s overall condition.
Opponents’ concerns were heightened in March by the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor, which has the same outdated boiling-water design as the Oyster Creek plant. A quake and tsunami knocked out safety and cooling systems at the Japanese plant, and the crippled reactor continues to release radiation.
Court: No Second-Guessing
Nevertheless, the federal appeals court declined Wednesday (May 18) to intervene in the case.
“We are confident that the NRC's review of Exelon's application was well-reasoned, and we will not second-guess technical decisions within the realm of its unique expertise,” the court said in its ruling.
Oyster Creek is owned by Chicago-based Exelon Nuclear Corp., which has decided to shut down the facility in 2019—10 years ahead of schedule—rather than upgrade it. The plant employs about 700 people and generates power for about 600,000 homes.
In a letter March 4 to Exelon, a regional NRC official reported that a February inspection had found that “overall, Oyster Creek operated in a manner that preserved public health and safety and met all cornerstone objectives.”
All inspection findings “had very low (i.e., green) safety significance, and all Pls [Performance Indicators] indicated that your performance was within the nominal, expected range,” the letter said
Steel Container Coating
Opponents’ concerns have centered on corrosion to the plant's drywell shield, a metal containment enclosure for the reactor. The steel wall was designed to contain radiation steam in case of an accident, but corrosion has eaten away at the liner and made the wall thinner over time.
Daisuke TSUDA / flickr
|Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has the same design as the Oyster Creek facility, which began operations in 1969.|
Exelon applied an epoxy coating to the liner in the 1990s and removed a sand bed at the base of the reactor that was found to hold moisture, but corrosion that occurred before the sand bed replacement still exists, published news reports say.
NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko cast the lone dissenting vote against license renewal in 2009, saying that a then-recent inspection report called into question “the expert testimony ... in which Exelon described the (sand bed) coating as being in pristine condition,” reported the website Three Mile Island Alert.
“We are pleased with this decision, and will continue with our commitment to operate Oyster Creek in a safe and reliable manner through the end of 2019,” said plant spokeswoman Suzanne D'Ambrosio.
Opponents lambasted the court’s decision to defer to the NRC.
“The court has washed its hands of Oyster Creek, but they washed it in tritium-contaminated water,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said in a statement.
“This decision doesn't mean the plant is safe and the issues we raised are not important,” he said. “It means the court decided to trust the NRC. There are still major problems with the plant including an inadequate, corroding containment wall, inadequate fire protection, issues with tritium leaks and elevated spent fuel rod storage and problems stemming from the aging of the facility.”
Pipe Coatings Cited
In April 2009, radioactive groundwater was found to be leaking from underground pipes at the plant. After investigating, Exelon reported that it had traced the problem to coatings issues.
“Improperly applied coatings during maintenance in the early 1990s allowed moisture to come in contact with” eight-inch and 10-inch underground carbon steel condensate system pipe that both developed leak, Exelon wrote in a “Dear Plant Neighbor” letter summarizing its Root Cause Analysis of the leak.
Exelon also said that an engineering document on its piping program “contained errors for the two buried pipes.”
“The document correctly recorded that these two lines had been excavated in 1991, but incorrectly stated that both pipes had been completely recoated and the 8-inch line replaced with stainless steel,” Exelon’s letter said.
“The recoating activity performed in 1991 did not replace all existing coating, leaving some adjoining areas vulnerable to corrosion.”
Exelon said it had replaced the leaky pipes, reviewed the buried piping program and was “correcting all identified deficiencies.” The company also said it was “implementing a strategic plan for moving direct buried piping either above ground or into monitored trenches, or some alternate protective measure.”
Exelon called the affected buried pipe “non-safety related” and said the leak did not affect public or employee health or safety.
Fire Exemptions Approved
On May 15, the NRC approved a fire safety exemption in 21 areas of the Oyster Creek plant. The exemption allows operators to open and close valves by hand and perform other manual tasks, including those needed to protect the reactor from damage, during a fire. The exemption is in lieu of meeting NRC requirements to separate and protect circuits from fire damage.
The NRC routinely waives fire rule violations at nearly half of the nation’s commercial reactors, The Washington Post reported May 14.