Skip to main content

Uprates Stymie the Search for Scandal

The Washington Post has an interesting blog post from Brad Plumer on the nuclear energy industry’s stealthy increase of electricity output via uprates. Here’s how Plumer defines an uprate:

According to a new analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the operators of 98 of the country’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors have asked regulators for permission to boost capacity from their existing plants.

Or, as Plumer points out, the equivalent output of six new reactors (though I would add that it is spread out among 30 or more states instead of six – a net positive. Altogether, there have been 145 instances of accepted uprate application – some reactors have been uprated more than once.)

Uprates aren’t peculiar occurrences, but you knew there had to be a catch:

In recent years, however, nuclear operators have started applying for much larger “extended uprates,” which can increase the output of a plant by as much as 20 percent. This process can include big changes to high-pressure turbines and other equipment.

Do these “big changes” create a danger? Well:

Utilities and regulators have used computer modeling to show that “a properly uprated reactor is no more vulnerable than one operating at its original capacity.”

It’s worth remembering that making a facility “vulnerable” does no one any good, so the conservative approach typically taken at nuclear facilities would dictate that plants avoid uprates if there were multiple instances of their being problematic.

That doesn’t mean there has never been a problem. But where there have been problems, there have been solutions.

In 2002, both reactors at the Quad Cities Nuclear Plant were restarted after having their capacity boosted by 17.8%. Pipes began to shake, and cracks formed in a steam separator, which removes moisture from the steam before it enters the turbines. In one case, a 9-by-6-inch metal chunk broke off and disappeared.

Broken parts were replaced, but the problem continued. Exelon Corp., which owns the three plants, and the NRC were mystified.

Problem.

Eventually the problem was uncovered: acoustic waves caused by the geometry of the steam pipes. The pipes were acting like a musical instrument. Their geometry was modified to "detune" them.

Solution. And the story also notes that the NRC has held up two uprate applications until “steam separator” questions are answered. These are industrial and regulatory issues that are handled in the course of doing business.

To be honest, while Plumer is looking for a way to make uprates newsworthy, building from an L.A. Times story, he’s honest in noting that they have not been problematic so far: the Quad Cities story above comes from the Times may seem to put a more sinister cast on uprates, but still nothing came from the incident. A problem occurred, caused no harm and was fixed.  That’s not very diabolical.

---

Let’s be fair here. You want reporters to go after hidden and/or malignant behavior in industry – and nuclear energy facilities have been in the journalistic loop since the accident at Fukushima Daiichi – but the American nuclear energy industry just hasn’t been cooperating by revealing itself as a scandal ridden cesspool run by uncaring monsters.

The AP series last year ran several parts and ended up being about nothing because there was nothing really to find. That was an epic fail. Plumer and the Post more or less admit that the biggest scandal surrounding uprates is that they have supplied some 6500 additional megawatts of cleanly generated electricity. So at least we know that.

Comments

Anonymous said…
"Problem, solution?" As they said on Seinfeld, you "yada-yada'd" over years of technical problems and expense.

It's worth noting, as this post did not, that the steam dryers at Quad Cities were so severely damaged by the acoustic waves generated by operation at EPU power levels that they had to be replaced, not just modified.

That required the reactors to operate at their pre-uprate capacities for years while the issues were diagnosed and addressed.

Then the replacement dryer for Unit 2 was damaged during installation, requiring further component replacements and repairs.

Maybe that's not "sinister" -- whatever that means in the context of nuclear plant maintenance -- but it took the industry years and Exelon millions of dollars to address.

Popular posts from this blog

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.

Huh?

The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.


What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

A Billion Miles Under Nuclear Energy (Updated)

And the winner is…Cassini-Huygens, in triple overtime.

The spaceship conceived in 1982 and launched fifteen years later, will crash into Saturn on September 15, after a mission of 19 years and 355 days, powered by the audacity and technical prowess of scientists and engineers from 17 different countries, and 72 pounds of plutonium.

The mission was so successful that it was extended three times; it was intended to last only until 2008.

Since April, the ship has been continuing to orbit Saturn, swinging through the 1,500-mile gap between the planet and its rings, an area not previously explored. This is a good maneuver for a spaceship nearing the end of its mission, since colliding with a rock could end things early.

Cassini will dive a little deeper and plunge toward Saturn’s surface, where it will transmit data until it burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. The radio signal will arrive here early Friday morning, Eastern time. A NASA video explains.

In the years since Cassini has launc…