The Perils of Bailing Out Aging Nuclear Stations

In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident, policy makers were consumed with our ability to keep pace with energy demand and at the same time foster diversity. We were dependent on coal and nuclear for electrical generation in Pennsylvania. Part of the goal of diversification was to focus on "energy efficiency." A dramatic increase in alternative and renewable energy led to a decline in demand impacting all classes of customers. Together with the re-emergence of Pennsylvania as a gas producing state, the Commonwealth has a more balanced portfolio, and electric prices well below the national average.

Ratcheting up our dependency on old and uneconomical nuclear reactors is like putting our energy policy in reverse. The margin of error in nuclear reactor operations narrows with age. Plants become more vulnerable after operating in harsh conditions for decades, parts wear out, institutional memory decreases, and backup emergency systems are susceptible to degraded reliability.

As Pennsylvania rate payers and taxpayers know well, nuclear comes with huge financial and safety risks, as evidenced by the meltdown at TMI-2 in 1979, the temporary closure of Peach Bottom in 1987, and $9 billion in stranded costs for uneconomical nuclear power plants.

Policy makers elected to protect the health and welfare of the public should consider the following factors prior to bailing out TMI again:

1. Steam generator defects at Three Mile Island.

In early 2010, Exelon Corporation completed installation of new steam generators as part of a $300 million dollar upgrade to extend the life of Unit-1 at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. The steam tubes inside the original steam generators had worn thin, and needed to be replaced.

After only 22 months of operation, premature wear was discovered inside the new steam generators. Some of the steam tubes had been vibrating and banging against each other. A few of them had worn through the tube walls more than halfway of the acceptable limit of 40 percent.

• A new metal alloy, an aggressive design, and a manufacturing defect in the new steam generators are allowing some tubes to bang together and wear thin.

• Unexpected thermal expansion was cited as the root cause.

• Data indicates a reactor transient could cause sufficient thermal expansion of the tubes to cause them to self-destruct by banging together. Should the steam generators fail in this manner, the internal damage would destroy the radiation barrier function of the steam tubes, releasing radiation directly to the environment in what is called a "containment bypass accident." These rapid releases would allow no time for an evacuation, and represent a dangerous challenge. That is why this is no "small" matter.

• There has been no testing of the steam generators under these higher temperatures as required by Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations.

• The San Onofre nuclear plant closed in 2013 due to the failure of its newly designed steam generators. This was caused by a design error similar to that of TMI's new steam generators.

• Three Mile Island Alert requested that the NRC address this problem four years ago but the problem has been ignored.

TMI-Alert will pursue legal action in early 2019.

2. The twin issues of additional expenses and containment of radioactive waste are significant.

TMI has unique risks due to its proximity to an airport, lack of storage capacity, earthquake vulnerabilities (TMI is the 10th most vulnerable plant in the nation), and risk of flooding. This is costly and dangerous.

TMI is one of the last reactors entirely dependent of spent fuel pools. These pools often become de facto long-term storage, sites with fuel assemblies “re-racked” thus increasing the heat load of the pools. At Rancho Seco, fuel removed from reactors in 1984 is still cooling in wet spent fuel pools. The TMI-1 site needs to accelerate waste transfer to dry cask storage to protect the public.

3. Odds become greater as reactors age increasing the likelihood of an accident.

TMI-1 is a 44 year old plant using 1960s technology.

In 1974, one of the the “best automobile purchases” was a Ford Pinto. Consumer Guide stated, “The car has not been involved in a serious callback campaign.” Four years later, 1.5 million Pintos were recalled, and the number of deaths attributed to fuel tank fires ranged from 27 - 180.

The same year the Pinto was rolled out, TMI-1 came on line. Nuclear technology was also viewed in high regard. Five years later, TMI’s sister reactor melted down after being on line for for less than 90 days.

Everyone supports jobs, but at what price to hardworking taxpayers who have to support Exelon’s bottom line? In Illinois it was calculated that each job saved in Exelon’s latest bail out was over $1 million dollars per job.

Technology advances impact jobs. It happens in every industry. Car companies that have not increased their auto’s efficiency over 40 years are selling fewer cars than their competitors. Local telephone companies are selling people fewer land lines. The list goes on and on.

4. We need to apply the lessons learned from “nuclear autopsies” at permanently closed reactors like Oyster Creek, and relicensed reactors like Peach Bottom prior to bailing out old and uneconomical reactors in Pennsylvania.

Presently, there are as many as 16 known significant age-related degradation mechanisms (i.e. radiation and thermal induced embrittlement, stress corrosion cracking, fatigue) attacking the base metals, welds, concrete and entire systems including more than 1,200 miles of control, instrumentation and power cables at the Peach Bottom two-unit reactor site.

The industry, the NRC and national laboratories publicly acknowledge an abundance of gaps, deficiencies, and uncertainties in their present understanding of how these aging degradation mechanisms and their synergies destructively impact reactor safety and performance.

A thorough analysis on the overall reactor systems, including both the structures and components of the reactor operations is essential, in fact obligatory, to reasonably project safety performance into the future at a minimum, before keeping any nuclear plant open.

5. Most financial incentives are intended to encourage new industries for a cleaner environment.

Financial incentives are intended to encourage new industries and promote a cleaner environment. The nuclear bailout scheme punishes rate and tax payers, and rewards a fading industry instead. Nuclear plants emit hundreds of thousands of pounds of chemicals to the Commonwealth’s waterways every year. The nuclear wastes which are created by nuclear reactors will require untold billions of dollars to safeguard for thousands of years to come. With those two facts in mind, nuclear energy can hardly be viewed as an emission free electrical generator.

Investment in alternative energy, energy efficiency and renewable generation is increasing as production costs decline, reliability margins increase, and we continue to build a more diverse energy portfolio. For example, the solar industry has reduced its costs by 80% in the last twenty years while nuclear costs increase making them uncompetitive.

Home grown Pennsylvania options create a desired localized electrical resiliency while nuclear plants go off-line in response to grid disturbances. Moreover, it is a resiliency that does not rely on foreign sources of nuclear fuel or oil.