It’s reasonable for journalists to beaver around the nuclear energy industry to find evidence that the industry is a nest of vipers plotting disaster and misery. That’s what journalists do. And I guess one can always find something that can be ratcheted into a breathless story. But the nuclear energy industry in context is not very, um, viperous and thus such stories tend to point at wicked seeming details that are pretty benign – in context.
The Al-Jazeera story below doesn’t really qualify here because the story has a suspicion of American motivation underlying it that makes it vulnerable to conspiracy theories and bluntly unproveable – one might even say false - assertions.
But the Associated Press, in a long story published yesterday, tries a different approach, trawling through Nuclear Regulatory Commission records to try to show a coziness between the industry and its regulators that make the party animals at the Mine Safety and Health Administration look like shrinking violets. Well, no parties in this case, but thinly veiled collusion.
CRACKED TUBING: The industry has long known of cracking in steel alloy tubing originally used in the steam generators of pressurized water reactors. Ruptures were rampant in these tubes containing radioactive coolant; in 1993 alone, there were seven. Even today, as many as 18 reactors are still running on old generators.
This is a simple point. but let’s add in two additional data points:
1. Of the 69 nuclear facilities that have steam generators (not all do), 55 have replaced their generators, with two more in the process of doing so.What the AP ignores here and throughout the article is that older equipment can be, and is, replaced.
2. The number of plants reporting (to the NRC, mind you – the AP didn’t find this out by itself) degraded steam generator tubes has fallen considerably as the tubes are replaced. Fifteen plants reported degraded tubes in the 1980s, seven plants in the 1990s, and five plants reported degraded tubes between 2000 and 2004; And since 2004? No plant has reported degraded tubing. None at all.
That’s context and it puts a decidedly different cast on the reporting. There are also errors large and small in the article:
Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.
This one is small, meant to bolster the notion of collusion. But that single “government or industry body” would be INPO, The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. It maintains a database of operational issues and it tracks them over time. Every utility that operates a nuclear power plant has access to this information for review and corrective action as needed.
But beyond lapses in providing context and simple errors, the story raises issues that are noted and solved over time. The success of such efforts is a credit to the industry, but the AP turns it into a debit:
Two years later, cracking was allowed to grow so bad in nozzles on the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio, that it came within two months of a possible breach, the NRC acknowledged in a report. A hole in the vessel could release radiation into the environment, yet inspections failed to catch the same problem on the replacement vessel head until more nozzles were found to be cracked last year.
But the article fails to note – or the authors didn’t know – that the industry had in place a program to monitor boric acid corrosion, which is a well-known phenomenon. And immediately after Davis-Besse happened, the industry implemented a materials management initiative to strengthen the focus of research efforts and predictive maintenance in the area of materials degradation. As the story acknowledges, the cracks were detected two months before any (potential) harm could occur. In other words, the industry fixed the problem.
Obviously, the AP wants to imply that we missed disaster by that much, but if disaster is always missed by that much, then it’s logical to assume that the industry and its regulators are actually keeping a good eye on things.
Could the industry and its regulators do a better job? Sure, but a safety culture in any field is a process, not a recipe. You don’t get a soufflé at the end. You get an industry always working through issues and learning how to further enhance safety.
This has paid off: The industry’s average capacity factor—a measure of efficiency—has been within a percentage point or two of 90 percent every year for the past decade. To do this does not suggest short cuts and sloppiness; just the opposite: it demonstrates that the facilities are being well managed and maintained.
Oh, and PS: The AP built this story out of public data – you could write the same story (though a better, fairer one, I hope) if you wanted. How much more transparent could an industry be? Hard to hide in the shadows with thousand watt bulbs pointed at you.
Update 6/22, 7 am:
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a response to the AP articles here (pdf).
Here's NEI's formal response as well.
Update 6/23, 9:30 am: