The Perils of Bailing Out Aging Nuclear Stations

In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident, policy makers
were consumed with our ability to keep pace with energy demand and at
the same time foster diversity. We were dependent on coal and nuclear for
electrical generation in Pennsylvania. Part of the goal of diversification
was to focus on "energy efficiency." A dramatic increase in alternative and
renewable energy led to a decline in demand impacting all classes of
customers. Together with the re-emergence of Pennsylvania as a gas
producing state, the Commonwealth has a more balanced portfolio, and
electric prices well below the national average. 

Ratcheting up our dependency on old and uneconomical nuclear
reactors is like putting our energy policy in reverse. The margin of error in
nuclear reactor operations narrows with age. Plants become more
vulnerable after operating in harsh conditions for decades, parts wear out,
institutional memory decreases, and backup emergency systems are
susceptible to degraded reliability.

As Pennsylvania rate payers and taxpayers know well, nuclear comes
with huge financial and safety risks, as evidenced by the meltdown at
TMI-2 in 1979, the temporary closure of Peach Bottom in 1987, and $9
billion in stranded costs for uneconomical nuclear power plants.

Policy makers elected to protect the health and welfare of the public
should consider the following factors prior to bailing out TMI again:

1. Steam generator defects at Three Mile Island.

In early 2010, Exelon Corporation completed installation of new
steam generators as part of a $300 million dollar upgrade to extend the life
of Unit-1 at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. The steam
tubes inside the original steam generators had worn thin, and needed to be

After only 22 months of operation, premature wear was discovered
inside the new steam generators. Some of the steam tubes had been
vibrating and banging against each other. A few of them had worn through
the tube walls more than halfway of the acceptable limit of 40 percent. 

• A new metal alloy, an aggressive design, and a manufacturing defect in
the new steam generators are allowing some tubes to bang together and
wear thin. 

• Unexpected thermal expansion was cited as the root cause. 

• Data indicates a reactor transient could cause sufficient thermal
expansion of the tubes to cause them to self-destruct by banging together.
Should the steam generators fail in this manner, the internal damage would
destroy the radiation barrier function of the steam tubes, releasing
radiation directly to the environment in what is called a "containment
bypass accident." These rapid releases would allow no time for an
evacuation, and represent a dangerous challenge. That is why this is no
"small" matter. 

• There has been no testing of the steam generators under these higher
temperatures as required by Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations. 

• The San Onofre nuclear plant closed in 2013 due to the failure of its newly
designed steam generators. This was caused by a design error similar to
that of TMI's new steam generators. 

• Three Mile Island Alert requested that the NRC address this problem four
years ago but the problem has been ignored. 

TMI-Alert will pursue legal action in early 2019. 

2. The twin issues of additional expenses and containment of
radioactive waste are significant. 

TMI has unique risks due to its proximity to an airport, lack of
storage capacity, earthquake vulnerabilities (TMI is the 10th most
vulnerable plant in the nation), and risk of flooding. This is costly and

TMI is one of the last reactors entirely dependent of spent fuel pools.
These pools often become de facto long-term storage, sites with fuel
assemblies “re-racked” thus increasing the heat load of the pools. At
Rancho Seco, fuel removed from reactors in 1984 is still cooling in wet
spent fuel pools. The TMI-1 site needs to accelerate waste transfer to dry
cask storage to protect the public. 


3. Odds become greater as reactors age increasing the likelihood
of an accident. 

TMI-1 is a 44 year old plant using 1960s technology.

In 1974, one of the the “best automobile purchases” was a Ford Pinto.
Consumer Guide stated, “The car has not been involved in a serious
callback campaign.” Four years later, 1.5 million Pintos were recalled, and
the number of deaths attributed to fuel tank fires ranged from 27 - 180. 

The same year the Pinto was rolled out, TMI-1 came on line. Nuclear
technology was also viewed in high regard. Five years later, TMI’s sister
reactor melted down after being on line for for less than 90 days. 

Everyone supports jobs, but at what price to hardworking taxpayers
who have to support Exelon’s bottom line? In Illinois it was calculated that
each job saved in Exelon’s latest bail out was over $1 million dollars per

Technology advances impact jobs. It happens in every industry. Car
companies that have not increased their auto’s efficiency over 40 years are
selling fewer cars than their competitors. Local telephone companies are
selling people fewer land lines. The list goes on and on. 

4. We need to apply the lessons learned from “nuclear
autopsies” at permanently closed reactors like Oyster Creek,
and relicensed reactors like Peach Bottom prior to bailing out
old and uneconomical reactors in Pennsylvania. 

Presently, there are as many as 16 known significant age-related
degradation mechanisms (i.e. radiation and thermal induced
embrittlement, stress corrosion cracking, fatigue) attacking the base
metals, welds, concrete and entire systems including more than 1,200 miles
of control, instrumentation and power cables at the Peach Bottom two-unit
reactor site.


The industry, the NRC and national laboratories publicly
acknowledge an abundance of gaps, deficiencies, and uncertainties in their
present understanding of how these aging degradation mechanisms and
their synergies destructively impact reactor safety and performance. 

A thorough analysis on the overall reactor systems, including both
the structures and components of the reactor operations is essential, in fact
obligatory, to reasonably project safety performance into the future at a
minimum, before keeping any nuclear plant open. 

5. Most financial incentives are intended to encourage new
industries for a cleaner environment. 

Financial incentives are intended to encourage new industries and
promote a cleaner environment. The nuclear bailout scheme punishes rate
and tax payers, and rewards a fading industry instead.
Nuclear plants emit
hundreds of thousands of pounds of chemicals to the Commonwealth’s
waterways every year. The nuclear wastes which are created by nuclear
reactors will require untold billions of dollars to safeguard for thousands of
years to come. With those two facts in mind, nuclear energy can hardly be
viewed as an emission free electrical generator. 

Investment in alternative energy, energy efficiency and renewable
generation is increasing as production costs decline, reliability margins
increase, and we continue to build a more diverse energy portfolio. For
example, the solar industry has reduced its costs by 80% in the last twenty
years while nuclear costs increase making them uncompetitive. 

Home grown Pennsylvania options create a desired localized
electrical resiliency while nuclear plants go off-line in response to grid
disturbances. Moreover, it is a resiliency that does not rely on foreign
sources of nuclear fuel or oil.