Should the license for the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant be renewed?
By: LFDA Editor
NextEra Energy Seabrook is seeking to renew the Seabrook Nuclear Power plant's operating license, but the process has encountered several roadblocks, delaying the license approval.
On June 1, 2010, NextEra Energy filed an application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to renew the plant's operating license for 20 years -- from 2030 to 2050.
The NRC license renewal process generally takes 22-to-30 months following application submission. Aside from a thorough review and inspection, the renewal process also includes several public hearings.
Under NRC regulations, the original operating license for a nuclear power plant has a term of 40 years. A plant license may be renewed for up to an additional 20 years.
The Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant is a pressurized water reactor that sits on a 900-acre site in the towns of Seabrook, Hampton and Hampton Falls. It began operation in 1990 and generates approximately 1 million watts of electricity - enough to power 900,000 homes daily. Forty-four percent of New Hampshire's electricity is generated by Seabrook, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Proponents of nuclear power say it is a clean energy source that helps reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Opponents believe the risks of radioactive contamination outweigh the benefits.
Nuclear power safety was thrust back into the media spotlight with the earthquake/tsunami-induced meltdown of Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. Spent fuel rods caught fire and released radioactive material after the plant’s cooling system failed.
According to NextEra Energy:
- The (Seabrook) plant is designed to withstand the force of the earthquake that hit the Japanese plants, which is significantly higher than any recorded earthquake in New England history.
- The plant is located two miles inland and elevated 20 feet above sea level to protect against flooding and extreme storm surges.
Spent fuel rods are stored in cooling pools at Seabrook and other nuclear plants across the country because the U.S. lacks a central repository. Congress passed a law in 2002 designating Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a repository for high-level nuclear waste, but Energy Secretary Steven Chu decided to terminate the project this year.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's Operating Safety Review Team released its evaluation of Seabrook in April 2012. The investigation uncovered alkali-silica reaction (ASR) in several concrete structures. ASR is a slow chemical reaction that ultimately leads to micro-cracks in concrete and cement.
While NextEra is taking steps to mitigate the problem, the NRC estimates ASR has delayed Seabrook’s re-licensing application several years while it waits for testing to be completed by the University of Texas.
Opponents of the Seabrook license extension filed federal action against the NRC in March 2012, accusing the commission of violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it voted against allowing three groups (the Seacoast Anti-Pollution League, the New Hampshire Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Beyond Nuclear) into a NEPA hearing to discuss energy alternatives to nuclear power. The NRC opted to allow the groups into the hearing, but then reversed the ruling. An additional lawsuit was filed against the NRC on August 16 due to the ruling reversal, citing an additional violation of the Atomic Energy Act.
In November 2012, the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston heard the first oral arguments from in the case. The groups argue that alternative energies will likely emerge in the coming years, rendering the Seabrook energy supplies (and its relicensing) unnecessary. In January 2013, the Federal Appeals Court rejected the petition of the groups, barring them from participating in the process. Two other citizen groups, Friends of the Coast and the New England Coalition, are also opposing the relicensing.
NRC Safety Evaluation Report:
More concerns about the plant came about after a routine drill at the Seabrook Station in April 2012, when the employees failed to recognize a signal for radioactivity release, among other signals. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued the plant a “white inspection finding,” which signifies a low- to moderate-safety issue. A spokesman for the plant told WMUR that the issues were being addressed.
Following the safety drill issue, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its Safety Evaluation Report of the Seabrook Station on June 8, 2012, and listed the following safety-related issues as “open items” to be addressed by the Station. The Station is required to address these issues, as they act as roadblocks to the approval of the license extension.
According to the Safety Evaluation Report, the issues for the Station to address are:
- the aforementioned alkali-silica reaction, which is causing the degradation of concrete essential to the plant’s structure
- issues with water leakage between the two containment shells surrounding the reactor
- plans to maintain the aging plant structure during the remainder of its license and into the extended period
- assessment and replacement of degrading bolts and welds on the structure
- the issue of borated water and its effects on the structure
- standards for pressure-temperature margins around use of fragile vessels in nuclear reaction
stress or damage that water intrusion may be causing
Five NRC staff visited the plant on June 18, 2012, but declined to speak with press about the visit. The visit was called “routine” and intended for the staff to become more familiar with the plant before making any decisions on relicensing.
The plant received a clean report card from its quarterly inspection on June 30.
On August 7, the NRC issued a blanket decision that will prevent any nuclear power plant from being officially granted a license or relicense while an investigation is conducted to uncover potential environmental issues surrounding the storage of spent fuel rods and other radioactive waste. The decision came after a petition from environmental groups was submitted to the NRC, urging the commission to comply with an order from the federal Appeals Court to conduct this review. Licensing reviews will continue to take place. A spokesman for Seabrook Station declared that the effect of this decision would have little effect on the relicensing of New Hampshire’s plant.
A 4.0 magnitude earthquake shook New Hampshire on October 16, prompting the plant to announce that it incurred “an unusual event,” which is an NRC emergency classification (the lowest level of four). An inspection by the NRC’s resident inspector confirmed that there was no safety concern as a result of the earthquake.
Massachusetts intervention: In September, two legislators from Massachusetts proposed a bill to prevent nuclear plants from applying for relicensing more than 10 years ahead of expiration of the current license. Reps Edward Markey and John Tierney submitted Mass. bill HR 6554.
The NRC held an information night on December 11, 2012, to update the public and watchdog groups on the ASR issue. The NRC maintains that the plant is safe for operations, and has scheduled the next inspection for early 2013.
The evaluation of the plant by the NRC continues.
In the meantime, the NRC has set up the following webpage to continue the information release to the public on the happenings with Seabrook Station:
In February 2013, the NRC announced that the issues caused by ASR would not be considered in the relicensing hearings due to a two-month-late filing of the paperwork. The NRC confirmed that an opportunity to raise the issue at a later date would be available to the groups who filed the challenge, the Friends of the Coast and the New England Coalition.
The NRC announced in May 2013 that it still considers valid the two-year-old study conducted to determine the environmental safety of extending the operating license, after an April report details some of the plant's issues. The supplemental environmental statement maintains that the plant is suited to withstand a seismic event and that there are no new concerns regarding the disposal of radioactive fuel rods.
A team of international safety experts visited the plant in June 2013 to review the safety issues discovered in 2011. Known as an Operational Safety Review Team visit, the group came from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent a team of inspectors to the plant at the end of July 2013. The team audited the "seismic walkdowns," or exams assessing the adverse effects of seismic activity on equipment, of the plant based on requirements coming from the Fukushima, Japan, meltdown in 2011. Seabrook is one of eight plants in the country that is being evaluated.
Friends of the Coast/New England Coalition, which had been protesting the relicensing of Seabrook Station, reached a settlement with station owner NextEra in August of 2013. The settlement was approved by the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. This cleared the final contention against the relicensing of the plant by nuclear safety advocates.
A June 2014 meeting was held by the NRC to inform area residents that the plant was deemed to have operated safely in 2013 despite its degradation. The relicensing of the plant will be considered after ASR testing is conducted at the University of Texas, which is anticipated to take a few years. Officials also said that 171 areas of degradation were found through recent inspections, up from 131 discovered in 2013.