SnapShot of Safety Problems at Nuclear Reactors: 2002-2005
Nuclear reactors have continual problems, some minor, others much more serious. The principle issues are aging equipment, the complexity of the technology, the danger inherent in it, and the ever-encroaching pressure of the corporate bottom line. Nuclear technology requires that materials function in harsh conditions, at extremely high temperatures and pressures. Extensive backup systems must be operational and functioning optimally in order to ensure the containment of radioactive material. Both of these systems require constant monitoring and maintenance. Below is a sample of 3 reactors with serious issues.
This is the nation's second oldest nuclear complex. It is composed of three reactors in Salem County, New Jersey owned by PSEG Nuclear LLC. Two of the reactors are located on the plant's Salem facility; the other is located on the adjacent Hope Creek facility.
January 2005 - NRC advises that despite concerns from workers, the local community, and the state government, the Hope Creek reactor can be safely restarted without the repair of the water recirculation pump. As a result, PSEG prepares to resume reactor operation, and continues to assert that the pump is not an immediate danger.
November 2004 - A problem with one of the water recirculation pumps used at Hope Creek is confirmed by a second team of engineers. The problem, first noticed several years ago, is a bowed and cracked steel pump shaft. The shaft vibrates intensely at certain speeds, often "sounding like a freight train" according to workers at the plant. The continued functioning of the pump and the effects of the vibrations are of concern. If the pump was to burst, the reactor building would flood with radioactive water, and depending on the functioning of other systems, the reactor could overheat. PSEG wants to restart the reactor immediately though, and claims that the damaged pump does not pose any serious risk. The company has suggested replacing the pump when the reactor is scheduled for regular maintenance in 2006. This has sparked debate about whether nuclear safety is being sacrificed for the corporate bottom line. A public meeting between PSEG and the NRC on the issue is to be held January 12th.
October 2004 - A pipe bursts at Hope Creek, releasing a small amount of radioactive steam. A shutdown of the reactor is immediately attempted, and after "complications" controlling the reactor's water levels, the shutdown is eventually completed. Workers at the plant report that concerns about the pipe had been documented several weeks earlier but no action had been taken. The reactor remains shut down as the incident is investigated.
May 2004 - PSEG releases the results of three independent assessments done at the Salem and Hope Creek plants. The assessments, carried out by Synergy in December 2003, Utility Services Alliance (USA) in February 2004, and Independent Assessment Team in May 2004, are critical of PSEG. USA is revealed to have reviewed the company as "less than competent" in every category, and Synergy to have found evidence that the management and "working environment" discourage safety concerns.
February 2003 - Increased levels of radioactive tritium are detected in the groundwater at the Salem reactors, which are situated on the Delaware River. The cause is determined to be a leaking "spent fuel" pool at the site. The leak of radioactive water is reported to have resulted from a blocked drain in the pool, but the problem is not reported until months after it is detected, causing public concern about the timeliness and accuracy of information released.
This reactor is near Cleveland, Ohio, and is operated by FirstEnergy.
January 2005 - The reactor has continued problems with its water recirculation pumps. The two pumps unexpectedly change speed and one of them fails completely. As attempts to shut down the reactor are made, another pump used to bring cooling water into the reactor has problems, and the emergency backup systems have to be engaged in order to bring the reactor offline. The plant remains shut down as the NRC investigates.
December 2004 - The Perry nuclear power plant is forced to shut down when the recirculation pumps change speed, slowing the rate at which water is moved through the reactor. The problem is thought to be electrical in nature. The reactor has had previous trouble with these and other related pumps, having been shut down in May 2004 and September 2003 for similar reasons.
August 2004 - The NRC announces it will increase regulatory oversight of the Perry nuclear plant because of recent problems with safety systems and the plant's failure to take comprehensive corrective action.
October 1999 - The Perry reactor is determined to have cracked nuclear fuel rods leaking radioactivity. These are pinhole leaks in the metal cladding surrounding the uranium fuel in the plant’s reactor core. These leaks expose workers to more radiation, and they increase the amount of radiation that would be released in an accident. This is the eighth set of leaks found since the Perry plant was opened in 1987.
This is a reactor near Toledo, Ohio, owned and operated by FirstEnergy. The plant had significant issues throughout 2001 and 2002, and remains under the NRC's highest level of scrutiny.
July 2004 - Workers at FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse plant are exposed to radioactive gas while performing routine maintenance at the plant.
March 2004 - Davis-Besse is restarted after being shut down for two years. The damaged reactor vessel head has been repaired and equipment at the plant substantially renovated. NRC has mandated that a culture of safety among its managers and workers be revived, but it is unclear if anything will truly change.
March 2002 - Inspectors find a large hole in the head of the David-Besse reactor. The corrosion, which was caused by leaking water containing boric acid, is less than three-eights of an inch from breaching the reactor head and causing a loss-of-coolant accident. Such an accident, which is what occurred at Three-Mile Island, would allow water from the reactor core to move outside into the containment dome, disabling the reactor's principal cooling system. If this occurred, the emergency backup systems should come on, but these systems have been prone to problems, and if they failed to function optimally, the overheating and meltdown of the reactor could result. Besides the obvious maintenance and equipment problems, the responsibility and integrity of both FirstEnergy and the NRC have been questioned as a result of this incident.