The Perils of Nuclear DIY

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., October 17, 2011 – To describe Progress Energy’s Crystal River nuclear power plant on Florida’s west coast as a problem unit is a substantial understatement. Commissioned in 1977, the 838-MW Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactor has been one of nuclear’s Poor Pitiful Pearls for the past few years.

Currently, in the latest of a series of calamities dating back three years, Progress faces a decision by Florida utility regulators just how much it can recover from its customers to pay for a do-it-yourself steam generator replacement gone bad. According to accounts in the Florida press, the total bill to the utility – currently enmeshed in a merger with Duke Energy – could amount to over $2 billion, including the costs of replacement power. The company says most of that should be covered by insurance, but that’s not certain.

Replacing steam generators in PWRs, once a novel undertaking, has become fairly routine. It often involves some heavy-duty cutting into the concrete and steel dome to create doorway for the massive pieces of gear, something that has now been done in well over a score of plants where the steam generators haven’t lived up to their projected lives. It might also be possible to fish the equipment out through a containment hatch, a trickier enterprise.

Progress appears to have faced a fundamental choice. It could leave the steam generators alone and shut the plant down when its original license expires in 2016. Or it could make the repair and seek a 20-year license extension from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In January 2009, Progress applied for a license extension.

After bidding out the steam generator replacement job, the utility also decided that it could save $15 million (compared to a low bid of $81 million) by doing the cutting job itself. But once the work began in the fall of 2009, the workers discovered a crack in the containment. According to the NRC, the crack likely was caused by the utility, through errors in the way the workers loosened the steel tendons that surround the structure to give it stability.

Crystal River crack, from Progress Energy

Things went from bad to worse. According to an account in the St. Petersburg Times, “Things have not gone well. The company fixed the initial crack, but the containment building developed another one when workers retightened the tendons. Company officials have gone back to the drawing board. No final decision on how to repair the building has been made.” The company says the plant won’t operate until at least 2014.

In the interim, the utility and the regulators are sparring over who gets to pay for the repairs, the utility or its customers. Robert Trigaux, a Times business columnist, describes the whole affair as “Honey, I broke the nuclear power plant.” Trigaux raises questions about the license extension. “Should we have second thoughts about this scenario?” he writes. “It’s almost like discovering your artificial hip has worn hout. You know it will cost thousands to replace. If a scrub nurse offers to do the job for a hundred bucks, it is worth the risk? When it comes to a big-bucks nuclear plant, this should never have happened.”

There is another troubling development on the horizon that affects B&W PWRs and that may have some relationship to the Crystal River woes. FirstEnergy, based in Akron, Ohio, has reported a 9-meter long hairline crack in the containment head at its snake-bitten Davis-Besse plant. The 890-MW plant, which entered service in 1978, has suffered repeated and lengthy shutdowns over the years.

The latest problem surfaced in early October, with the unit down for installation of a new reactor vessel head, according to a Reuters account. When workers began cutting into the containment to get at the reactor head, they discovered what the company is calling “micro-cracks.” A FirstEnergy spokesman told the news service that the cracks were not similar to the problem at Crystal River.

This would be the third reactor head for the Davis-Besse plant. The original reactor head had to be replaced when workers in 2002 found a large hole in the head, attributed to corrosion from borated cooling water leaking from a cooling rod drive. In 2010, inspections found a series of small cracks in the control rod nozzles in the new head, leading to the decision to replace the new head.

According to FirstEnergy’s Todd Schneider, “We don’t believe there will be a problem with the schedule to replace the vessel head. Engineers are conducting a thorough investigation of the cracks. We should have an answer