Say no to revving up rickety reactors

Posted on December 29, 2010. Filed under: Nuclear |


From a column by John LaForge of Nukewatch, a Wisconsin-based organization, in The Capital Times:

The owners of two 40-year-old nuclear reactors at Point Beach, on Lake Michigan north of Two Rivers, want to increase the power output for each unit by 17 percent — from 1,540 megawatts to 1,800.

The gunning of rickety old nukes is getting a green light all over the region.

The Monticello reactor, 30 miles from Minneapolis, will boost its output to 120 percent of the original licensed limit — from 613 megawatts to 684. Monticello’s been rattling along since 1971, and it rattles badly. In 2007, a 35,000-pound turbine control box (6 feet by 6 feet and 20 feet long) broke its welds and fell onto a large steam pipe that was cut open, causing the loss of so much pressure that an automatic reactor shutdown was tripped. Decades of intense vibration and poor welding were blamed for the crash. The reactor had been operating at 90 percent power. So why not push the limits to 120 percent?

In 2009 the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected claims that the accident record at the two Prairie Island reactors, south of Minneapolis, is so bad that its license extension should be denied. In May 2006, one of them accidentally spewed radioactive iodine-131 gas over 110 of its own workers, who inhaled it. Internal radiation poisoning is the kind for which there is no decontamination. Even so, the NRC could soon OK letting the Prairie Island jalopies run until 2033 and 2034, respectively, rather than shut them down in 2013 and 2014 as the license now requires.

Back in Wisconsin, Point Beach’s “extended power uprate” (EPU) plan was published in the Federal Register by the NRC Dec. 10. The draft environmental assessment and “finding of no significant impact” are hair-raising. The public has until Jan. 8 to comment.

Should we be skeptical? Point Beach has received two of only four “Red findings” — the worst failure warning available — ever issued by the NRC. In 2006, the NRC found that operators had harassed a whistle-blower who documented technical violations. In 2005, Point Beach was fined $60,000 for deliberately giving false information to federal inspectors. In May 1996, it was the site of a potentially catastrophic explosion of hydrogen gas that upended the 3-ton lid on a huge cask filled with high-level radioactive waste. The lid was being robotically welded when the gas exploded.

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    A statewide nonprofit dedicated to promoting economically and environmentally sustainable energy policies and practices in Wisconsin.

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