Orange County Register's Dec. 9th, 2001 trio of articles on nukes

From: "Russell D. Hoffman" <>
Subject: Orange County Register' Dec. 9th, 2001 trio of articles on nukes

At 06:38 AM 12/10/01 , a reader wrote:

Where do I look in the OC Register to find the article? I've looked in several places and can't find it, or perhaps I have the wrong day.

Hi Jack,
It was the TOP NEWS item yesterday, but unfortunately the OC Register evidently hasn't yet learned about the advantages of using permanent addressing of its articles, so I couldn't give the specific URLs.  I've included the trio of articles below.
-- rdh


Going dark at San Onofre

A February fire that led to four-month closure of nuclear power plant fits a pattern of industry failures.

December 9, 2001


The Orange County Register

San Onofre -- It was 3:18 on a quiet Saturday afternoon when the control panel went dark at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

The date was Feb. 3, and operators were bringing Unit 3 back to full power after installing fresh uranium fuel.

When the reactor reached 40 percent power, an alarm horn suddenly blared. As its jarring 'BOOOP! BOOOP! BOOOP!" echoed through the control room, operators rushed in to diagnose what was happening.

All across the plant, circuit breakers were popping. The coolant pumps had slowed and the reactor's computer, sensing danger, had begun to shut down.

The room-sized instrument panel that warns of malfunctions was spangled with red.

Then a rogue blast of current popped safety breakers and the warning panel shut down too. Inside the control room, operators scrambled for a computer printout that would tell them what was happening.

Outside, something was on fire.

While operators struggled in the dark, a 20-year-old circuit breaker was about to cost troubled Southern California Edison more than $100 million. The fire would shut down the reactor for four months at the height of California's energy crisis and contribute to statewide rolling blackouts.

No one was hurt on Feb. 3. But in a worst-case scenario, a series of failures such as those that day could lead to a meltdown of the nuclear core. According to documents filed by Edison when the plant was first licensed, a meltdown could kill 130,000 people, cause 300,000 cancers and create 600,000 birth defects.

Nuclear power has a good safety record in the United States. But it is not impeccable. Leaks and accidents happen every month, but the general public rarely learns of them.

Since 1999, corroded pipes, leaking valves and other worn-out safety equipment has caused more than 50 fires, leaks, and safety hazards serious enough to require an emergency reactor shutdown. In three of the incidents - in New York and Pennsylvania - radiation was released into the atmosphere.

September's suicide bombings raised fears that terrorists might attack U.S. nuclear plants. But Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection reports and technical bulletins show that another danger lurks every day within these 20- to 40-year-old plants.

"These reactors were built at a time when the impacts of prolonged radiation exposure on materials wasn't known. We now know some of these components are deteriorating more quickly than expected," said Anna Aurilio, an engineer with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which opposes nuclear power.

"There is no question that as reactors get older, more and more equipment will become degraded," said Dan Hirsch, former director of the Adlai Stevenson Program on Nuclear Policy at UC Santa Cruz and president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles nuclear-watchdog group. "The San Onofre incident is troubling because it suggests there are other accidents waiting to happen with equipment that hasn't been adequately maintained or checked."

THE HEAD OF the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying group for the nation's commercial nuclear reactors, agrees that aging equipment is "an issue," but says the industry is working hard to address it through preventive maintenance.

Overall, the industry is proud of its record and believes more nuclear plants should be built in the United States.

"Existing plants are operating safely and reliably. From a nuclear standpoint, the record is pretty impeccable over the last 20 years," says Marvin Fertel, executive director of the institute.

The NRC's top officials agree, saying U.S. atomic power plants are safer than they've ever been.

The NRC's own statistics aren't as clear on that point. For instance, after a decade of improvement, the number of incidents that could lead to a serious nuclear accident has increased since 1999, NRC reports show.

Regulators don't think those increases are significant and have already given 20-year extensions to three nuclear plants approaching the expiration of their 40-year licenses.

Shortly after the extensions were approved, two of the three, Oconee in South Carolina and Arkansas 1 in Russellville, Ark., were found to have cracks in their nuclear reactors at the point where graphite rods are inserted to shut down the reaction.

The NRC has warned 69 nuclear plants, including San Onofre, to check for similar cracks, which could lead to an accident that melts the uranium core and releases toxic radiation outside the plant.

"When we relicense a plant, we are not saying that aging effects will not show up," said Jack Strosnider, director of engineering in the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation.

"Machines and mechanical components age. Power plants age. We have requirements for the plants to do inspections on all the important equipment. They have to do testing for corrosion, for cracking. They may not find these problems early in every case, but the people are out there looking," he said.

But some experts say regulators are not doing enough.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear-safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, testified before Congress in May that the NRC has allowed plant owners to cut back on safety checks and to operate with dangerously worn equipment. Lochbaum's group does not oppose nuclear power but argues that regulation should be tighter.

"These aging-related failures indicate beyond a reasonable doubt that the aging- management programs are inadequate," Lochbaum said.
NRC reports confirm that cooling pipes, valves and other safety systems have failed in service weeks or months after their poor condition was documented.

The NRC's inspector general criticized Strosnider's office last year for failing to follow up on engineering reports that showed a dangerous condition at Indian Point 2, which later leaked radioactive gases into the air near New York City. Strosnider acknowledged in an interview that the agency had made mistakes.

Aurilio, the citizens group lobbyist, said, "There is a consistent pattern of wanting to promote the industry and protect its profits instead of being a watchdog for the citizens. It's very troubling."

The industry and the NRC argue that nuclear plants have so many safety systems that these types of accidents don't threaten public safety. The amount of radiation released last year at Indian Point, they say, was so small it was difficult to measure.

But some health scientists argue that even small releases of radiation can endanger pregnant women and babies - leading to higher rates of cancer.

Studies that document higher cancer rates have been made at Turkey Point in South Florida, at Trojan Nuclear Station in Oregon and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Scientists still disagree on the cause and significance of those findings.

"I've been very skeptical," said Lyn Harris Hicks, a San Onofre watcher who has lived in San Clemente's Cypress Shores, less than three miles from the plant, for 30 years.

"During the licensing hearing, they told us they couldn't have any accidents at San Onofre because there were so many backup systems. Later we learned they have accidents all the time. They just don't call them accidents, they call them incidents. The general public accepts that we're not vulnerable, and that's wrong."

MOST OF THE time the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is a quiet giant, slumbering peacefully by the ocean. Two massive concrete containment domes form its chest. Its legs are the cooling pipes sending heated water a mile and a half out to sea. Its arms are the transmission towers pumping 2,200 megawatts of electricity to a power-hungry state.

Together with the 2,300-megawatt Diablo Canyon plant in Central California and the 4,200-megawatt Palo Verde in Arizona, this nuclear family provides about 20 percent of the power used in California on an average day.

All three plants are high-performance designs called pressurized-water reactors. That means they make extra power from their reactors by pressurizing water in their steam generators to 2,200 pounds - about 200 times the pressure of your car radiator.

NRC reports show these highly-stressed plants are six times as likely to have a serious accident as the simpler but less powerful boiling- water reactors.

The weak point of these reactors is the pressurized steam generator, which separates radioactive cooling water from clean water drawn from rivers or oceans.

A half-dozen of these steam generators have failed in the past 20 years, most recently at Indian Point 2.

Consolidated Edison, which operated the Hudson River plant, had inspected its steam-generator tubes in 1997 using an electronic device. The test results - which everyone agrees are difficult to read - showed that the tubes had deep cracks.

NRC inspectors allowed the company, which is not affiliated with Southern California Edison, to put the device back in service - and then granted the company an additional one-year extension before it had to retest or replace the tubes.

On Feb. 2, 2000, the steam generator failed, contaminating 20,000 gallons of cooling water and releasing radioactive gases into the air.

Palo Verde similarly failed to identify a tube defect during an inspection in 1998 and put a flawed generator back in service, NRC records show. That defect held until 2000, when it was discovered and repaired.

San Onofre, like Indian Point and Palo Verde, has been delaying the multimillion-dollar cost of replacing its steam generators.

Eight percent of the tubes in Unit 2 and 6 percent of the tubes in Unit 3 have had to be removed from service and plugged because of cracks and leaks, according to Southern California Edison. Once 10 percent of the tubes are plugged, Edison will have to replace the generators - or cut back power.

"We are trying to nurse these as long as we can," Edison's Ray Golden said.

WHILE SAN ONOFRE operators struggled that winter afternoon to restore power to their control panel, the plant's firefighters rushed to the Unit 3 switchroom, finding it filled with heavy smoke.

Plant engineers would later discover that a circuit breaker installed when the plant was built 25 years earlier had failed to close properly, likely due to wear, NRC reports show. When plant operators began to power up Unit 3, the partially closed contacts created a 4,000-volt arc that melted the breaker and filled the switchroom with smoke and ozone.

Like a welder out of control, that single breaker wreaked havoc. Nearby circuit breakers shorted or popped, cutting off power to safety systems throughout the plant.

Operators were able to cool the nuclear core by powering cooling pumps from Unit 2.

But other safety systems were crippled.

A backup cooling tank flooded its valves and could not be used - a violation of NRC rules.

The emergency oil pumps for the Unit 3 turbine never started, apparently due to another bad breaker.

The 200-ton generator continued to spin without oil, grinding its precisely- machined shaft into junk.

"It's analogous to being in your car on the highway and losing all your oil at 80 mph," said Edison's Golden.

Although the generator was destroying itself, it was still putting out enough power to fuel a stubborn blaze inside the refrigerator-size cabinet where the breaker was vaporizing. Firefighters repeatedly doused the cabinet with fire extinguishers. The blaze repeatedly restarted.

After arguing with control-room operators, firefighters finally received permission to use water on the fire at 5:40 p.m.

At 6:11 p.m., just shy of three hours after it started, the fire was out.

Repairs to the generator and the electrical system would eventually cost $40million, although Edison's insurer would pay for all but $2.5million.

The big hit was the cost of replacement power for 117 days - $98million.

IN THE PAST three years the NRC has found eight violations at San Onofre related to old or worn-out equipment.

In December 1999, Southern California Edison admitted having an "inadequate equipment status control program." Less than eight months later, NRC regulators found another "pattern of delayed maintenance" including electrical relays that weren't properly tested and failed when finally checked.

But Edison says the fire in February was not caused by inadequate maintenance.

Prior to the fire, breakers that didn't control safety functions were cleaned, lubricated and adjusted every six years, the company says. Breakers that control safety circuits were cleaned and adjusted every four years.

Breaker 3A0712, which sparked the fire, was cleaned, and adjusted on May 8, 1997, according to documents - three years and eight months before the fire.

More than 150 identical breakers are still in operation at San Onofre, dozens of them protecting critical safety systems.

Golden said the company has no plans to change its maintenance schedule. "This was original equipment," Golden said. "For 20 years it operated properly. If (engineers) see reoccurrence, it potentially could lead to a change in (maintenance) frequency. But right now that wouldn't be the case."

The NRC has found nothing wrong with Edison's breaker-maintenance schedule.
Hirsch, the nuclear-safety activist, disagrees.

"The PR spokespeople for nuclear power plants seem to have a button on their computer; they push it and out comes the phrase: "There's no evidence of unsafe conditions," Hirsch said.

"I would be much more relieved if they sometimes said, 'This is a problem, and we're going to take steps to fix it.'"


San Onofre's safety record

December 9, 2001

By Chris Knap

The Orange County Register

Although the safety record and performance of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has improved in recent years, the plant had a poor record in the 1980s. Here's a look back:

1968: Southern California Edison and its minority partner, San Diego Gas & Electric, open San Onofre Unit 1, a 400-megawatt nuclear power plant on the beach near Camp Pendleton. San Onofre is touted as a demonstration plant for pressurized-water reactors.

1980: With Unit 1's steam generator badly dented and leaking from corrosion, Edison brings in 600 workers to patch 7,000 faults in the radioactive steam tubes. Edison is later fined $100,000 for allowing 66 workers to become exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation.

1981: San Onofre workers excavating for a walkway across the beachfront adjacent to the Unit 1 reactor discover 700 cubic yards of radioactive sand, apparently contaminated by water that leaked from the cooling system at Unit 1. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission lists San Onofre among 10 U.S. reactors whose safety record is "far below average."

1982: San Onofre Unit 2, a pressurized-water reactor rated at 1,070 megawatts, comes on line.

1983: San Onofre Unit 3, the twin of Unit 2, comes on line.

1984: Defective fuel rods disintegrate during refueling, scattering radioactive particles that are tracked throughout the plant. The contamination is so widespread that protective clothing on the ready-to-issue shelves is found to contain radioactive particles. San Onofre reports release of 40,000 curies of airborne radioactivity in 1984, 10 times average. The NRC fines Edison $100,000.

1986: Edison reports 236 worker contaminations, about 100 more than the industry annual average. SCE internal documents, unearthed during a lawsuit by a worker who later died of cancer, suggest that the true number of contaminations between 1984 and 1987 was as high as 500 workers per year.

1987: San Onofre workers are found to have carried radioactive fuel particles out of the plant on their jackets, shoes, and other personal articles. One health technician finds a radioactive fuel fragment embedded in his home carpet.

1992: Facing problems with leaks and cracking of the reactor vessel after 24 years in operation, Edison decides to close Unit 1; decommissioning begins.

1994: Edison agrees to a multimillion-dollar settlement with Rung Tang, a nuclear-safety monitor at San Onofre in the '80s who allegedly contracted leukemia from exposure to microscopic particles of highly irradiated fuel. The exact amount of the settlement is kept secret.

1998: NRC cites Edison for losing a Safeguards Contingency Plan, which details how the plant would respond to security breaches.

2000: NRC extends the operating licenses for San Onofre Units 2 and 3 from 2013 to 2022. Edison obtains a coastal permit to store irradiated fuel in concrete casks because it has run out of room in its cooling ponds.

2001: Failure of a 20-year-old breaker sparks a stubborn electrical fire that forces an emergency reactor shutdown, floods backup water supply valves and damages the generator shaft on Unit 3. No one is injured and no radiation is released, but damage tops $40 million and the reactor is shut down for four months. Replacement power costs financially weakened Edison $98 million.

Reporting by Chris Knap / The Register. Sources: NRC documents, federal court files, The Orange County Register, The Associated Press, other published reports.


Recent safety hazards at aging nuclear plants

In the past three years, old or worn-out equipment has caused dozens of incidents requiring plants to shut down.

December 9, 2001


The Orange County Register

Since January 1999, worn-out equipment at U.S. nuclear power plants has caused more than 50 fires, radiation or steam leaks, or other serious safety hazards requiring shutdown of the nuclear reactor. Here are details of some of the most serious accidents:

January 1999: Inadequate maintenance led to a six-hour hydrogen fire on the roof of the control building at J.A. Fitzpatrick in Syracuse, N.Y., forcing a plant shutdown.

August 1999: A cooling- water drain line in Callaway, Mo., broke because of severe corrosion, forcing a reactor shutdown. A subsequent inspection revealed at least 10 areas where pipes had decayed and were in danger of breaking.

1999-2000: Millstone in Waterford, Conn., had to repeatedly shut down due to failures of the reactor control-rod drive system, including control rods that came loose and dropped into the reactor. The plant operator blamed failed insulation and damaged electrical leads.

February 2000: A steam generator tube ruptured at Indian Point 2 in New York, contaminating 19,000 gallons of cooling water and releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere.

May 2000: A failed electrical conductor at Diablo Canyon 1 in San Luis Obispo County triggered a fire that cut power to the coolant and circulating water pumps that keep the nuclear core from overheating.

August 2000: Peach Bottom Unit 3, in Pennsylvania, was forced into emergency shutdown when an instrument valve failed and caused a leak of contaminated reactor cool ant outside of primary containment. A similar valve failure and leak of radiation had occurred May 28, 2000, but the valves were not replaced.

October 2000: At V.C. Summer, in South Carolina, a 29- inch diameter coolant pipe, with walls more than 2 inches thick, suffered a crack due to water stress corrosion, creating a leak of radioactive cooling water. Crack indications were later found at four more reactor inlets.

November 2000 to April 2001: After receiving a 20-year license extension, operators of Oconee 1, in Seneca, S.C., found 19 cracks in the reactor where control rods pass through to the nuclear core. Radioactive cooling water had been leaking into the containment sump. In February nine leaks were found in Oconee 3, which had been taken down for refueling. Oconee 2 was later found to have four leaking control-rod nozzles.

January 2001: Failure of an 18-year-old valve at North Anna, Va., created a leak of radioactive coolant of more than 10 gallons per minute, forcing a shutdown of the reactor.

February 2001: A 20-year-old circuit breaker at San Onofre 3, near Camp Pendleton, failed to close, creating a 4000-volt arc and fire that cut power to coolant control systems, drowned emergency switching valves and shut down emergency oil pumps, destroying the Unit 3 generator shaft. Currently, 150 identical breakers remain in service at the plant.

February 2001: After Arkansas 1 was re-licensed for 20 years, extensive cracking was found on the control-rod drives and thermocouple nozzles entering the nuclear reactor.

August 2001: Failure of a valve at Palo Verde 3, in Arizona, caused a leak of radioactive cooling water from the irradiated fuel-cooling pool into the reactor containment building, forcing a reactor shutdown.

Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection reports, incident reports and technical bulletins.


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First posted December, 2001.

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