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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Aging Plants

Air Date: Week of June 13, 2003

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It’s been 25 years since a nuclear power plant was licensed in the U.S. Today’s operating plants are starting to show signs of aging. Host Steve Curwood talks with Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, about recent reports of cracks and leaks in several major nuclear plants.

Transcript

CURWOOD: There hasn’t been a new order to build a nuclear power plant in the U.S. in the last 25 years. And some of the plants that are still up and running are beginning to show their age.

Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and a science advisor to Living on Earth. He has been monitoring performance at the nation’s 69 active nuclear power plants and says there has been a rash of leaks and signs of corrosion at several of them, starting with a reactor near Toledo, Ohio called Davis-Besse.

MAKHIJANI: It had been known from the beginning that boric acid, which is used in the coolant to control the chain reaction, is very corrosive. And the reactor lid, the head of the reactor, had almost corroded through. There was half an inch between a very, very serious emergency and what could have been a meltdown accident at Davis-Besse.

Then, more recently, there were discovered leaks at the instrument ports in the South Texas power plant Unit 1. This is near Bay City, Texas. And there were leaks around the holes which are the penetrations into the reactor vessel.

We don’t know exactly why these leaks have occurred. These are not very old nuclear power plants. They are about 15 years old, the one in Texas. The one in Ohio is 25 years old. And there have been leaks in a reactor belonging to Duke Energy called the Oconee power plant, and this has been quite unexpected. It’s been a very, very nasty surprise to find these leaks and extensive corrosion, especially at Davis-Besse.

CURWOOD: What is the reason behind these leaks? Is there any connection here?

MAKHIJANI: Well, I think there are two reasons. One belongs on the operator and owner side. At Davis-Besse, for instance, they had been asking for postponement of essential and scheduled inspections.

And on the regulatory side, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been very lax. The Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission looked into the Davis-Besse fiasco and concluded that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wasn’t doing its job in properly inspecting and regulating these places.

CURWOOD: Now tell me about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. How active is the NRC in determining the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants?

MAKHIJANI: The budget of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been cut. Their technical staff is down, I believe, by 25 percent. So they are not able to carry out these inspections.

At the same time, there is an immense amount of pressure from industry to allow them to churn out more and more power from these power plants because every extra kilowatt hour you generate, the marginal kilowatt hour costs less to produce and so it makes more profit.

CURWOOD: Arjun, why the push for nuclear power now, given the past and recent safety problems and questions?

MAKHIJANI: Well, it’s not quite clear. The Bush Administration came into office not having a track record among its major personnel, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, of having been close to the nuclear industry. And Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force met with a number of people in the first spring of the administration.

And they met with the Nuclear Energy Institute, which is the lobby arm of the nuclear industry. And apparently the Nuclear Energy Institute seems to have done a very convincing job. And nuclear energy has since played a very large role in the administration, as well as champions in Congress.

Now, nuclear energy has some pretty serious champions in Congress, and nuclear power is seeing its moment in history come back, perhaps, like the ‘50s when we were promised “too cheap to meter.” Anyway, they are making a very, very hard push on all fronts for nuclear energy.

Their main line is, it’s going to solve the global warming problem. And nuclear power as a solution to global warming is theoretically possible, but the proliferation problems and accident risks it would create would, I think, be intolerable because you have to build an immense number of nuclear power plants, one large plant a week around the world for the next 40 years, to make a significant dent in the global warming problem.

CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Arjun, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you so much for asking me, Steve.

[MUSIC: Goldenboy “Sing Another Song for the Winterlong” Blue Swan Orchestra b-girl records (2002)]

 

 

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