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Cracks Worry Nuclear Plant’s Opponents

Friday, November 13, 2015

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Environmental groups have said an Ohio nuclear power plant’s license should not be renewed because cracks in the plant’s concrete reactor shield pose an ongoing danger.

Beyond Nuclear reportedly told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during a Nov. 7 hearing that the cracks in the Davis-Besse plant could worsen over time and cause chunks of concrete to fall on important plant components, according to an SNL Financial report.

“The prospect of 22 more years of radioactive Russian roulette on the Lake Erie shore, with a cracked concrete containment, and paid for by a multibillion-dollar ratepayer bailout, is outrageous, and must be prevented,” a group spokesman said after the hearings.

License Debate

The hairline cracks were discovered in October 2011. According to SNL, the cause of the cracks has been attributed to the lack of an exterior weatherproof coating on the shield building. When a blizzard hit the Toledo, OH, region in 1978, moisture entered the concrete. The concrete then froze and expanded over time and eventually led to the cracks.

By Nuclear Regulatory Commission / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Environmental groups have said cracks in the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant's reactor shield could get worse, and that owner FirstEnergy should be denied a license renewal.

Davis-Besse is Ohio’s oldest nuclear power plant, according to FirstEnergy’s website. It began producing power in 1977 and is capable of generating 900 megawatts. It also is Ottawa County’s largest employer with 700 full-time workers. The reactor vessels, according to the website, are 36 feet tall and 14 feet in diameter.

Plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. began seeking a license renewal in 2010 for a license that expires in April 2017, SNL said. The license would allow the plant to continue to operate until 2037. The company also is awaiting a decision from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio for a proposed power purchase agreement for the plant’s output.

Usually, the license renewal hearings take about two years, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell told SNL. But in cases involving proceedings before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, they can take longer, he said.

Multiple groups—such as Beyond Nuclear and the Ohio Green Party—filed contentions about the cracking and tried to prevent Davis from renewing its license, which also would have affected the purchase agreement. But the board refused to grant the groups a hearing.

Cracking Concerns

Members of Beyond Nuclear note that an NCR engineer testified in September that an earthquake could cause a cracked piece of concrete to break off the cracked reactor shield. Although the engineer said that was unlikely to happen, any concrete that did fall could hit the auxiliary building that houses safety features such as emergency cooling systems, SNL reported.

By Gregory Varnum / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The cracks first appeared in 2011 but likely were caused by moisture entering an uncoated portion of the reactor (not pictured) after a 1978 blizzard, which then froze and expanded over time.

FirstEnergy spokeswoman Jennifer Young reportedly said that the plant already has protections in place to address Beyond Nuclear’s scenario. She also told SNL that the company has a “robust” plan to deal with the cracks.

Concrete experts from around the country told FirstEnergy after a month-long investigation that the shield building “could safely remain intact during seismic or other events, such as tornados or impacts from large objects,” according to Young.

“In the extremely unlikely event that did occur, the safety equipment and facilities that surround the shield building are already designed to withstand impacts from sizeable external objects, such as large projectiles that may result from a tornado,” said Young.

Although FirstEnergy CEO Charles Jones Jr. has said that the company expects to settle with the PUC of Ohio early next year, Beyond Nuclear has been calling upon state residents to oppose the agreement, SNL said.

The group reportedly said that the agreement amounts to “$3 billion in ratepayer subsidies, to prop up [FirstEnergy’s] age-degraded and uncompetitive Davis-Besse reactor.” The group said it believes it would cost more than $3 billion to replace Davis-Besse’s reactor containment if the cracks got worse.

Editor's Note: The second caption was modified to indicate the Davis-Besse reactor is not pictured in the photo above.


Tagged categories: Concrete; Concrete coatings and treatments; Concrete defects; Humidity and moisture; North America; Nuclear Power Plants; Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); Quality Control

Comment from M. Halliwell, (11/13/2015, 11:02 AM)

Two points...first, the caption in the second photo is a bit misleading. It implies that the cooling tower (pictured) is the reactor shield building. Second, I'd love to hear who the opposing groups have "waiting in the wings" to step up with 900 MW of generating capacity and 700 jobs if they are successful in shutting down the plant in may not be a huge amount of power compared to some plants (the largest fuel oil, natural gas and coal fired plants these days are in the 5500+ MW range), but that's a fair bit of capacity to lose in most markets.

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