NEWBURYPORT — The chorus of local communities and elected leaders trying to temporarily halt the relicensing of the Seabrook nuclear station is growing, but their petitions alone will not stop it.
Newbury selectmen and Newburyport's City Council recently joined state Sen. Steven A. Baddour, D-Methuen, state Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, and U.S. Rep. John Tierney, D-Salem, in sending letters to Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko requesting that he stop the relicensing process until a long-term solution has been found to deteriorating concrete found in an electrical tunnel.
According to NRC Region 1 spokesman Neil Sheehan, the NRC often receives letters from many different stakeholders, including "nonbinding resolutions" from local government officials.
"We value such input and carefully consider it," he said. "In the end, the NRC's decisions are based on evaluations of whether nuclear power plants can continue to operate safely, (which is) consistent with our mission."
Sheehan said that what it boils down to is that while the NRC seeks input, often through public hearings, licensing or relicensing of nuclear power plants is made based on safety and environmental scientific evidence analyzed by the commission's experts.
Seabrook's current license expires in 2030, but it has filed to have the license renewed for an additional 20 years. It's become a common practice among power plants to apply for a license renewal decades before the current one expires.
Sheehan said the NRC has not denied an application for a license extension like the one NextEra Energy Seabrook has requested, but when relicensing applications are found wanting, the NRC has returned them. At Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in western Pennsylvania, for example, the NRC returned the application for an extension because its initial assessment found it unsatisfactory. The application was later redone and resubmitted and found acceptable upon review.
"In the case of the Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant in upstate New York, we halted our review of the plant's license application about midway through, again because of concerns about the quality of certain information it contained, Sheehan said. "The company was eventually able to satisfy our concerns, and we continued on with the review."
But Sheehan said it's important to note the NRC review process is "iterative."
"That is, it is not simply a case of the company submitting an application and the NRC embarking on its review in isolation," he said. "All along the way, the NRC staff poses questions in writing and verbally to plant officials about different aspects of how aging of the facility would be handled during a license extension period."
If a company is unable to satisfactorily answer those queries, it can derail the review.
"But the companies that operate these plants spend millions merely to apply for an extension, and they work very hard to address our questions as the review advances," he added.
Seabrook's concrete problem was revealed in an NRC report issued May 23, 2011, that documented groundwater infiltrating cracks and saturating the concrete of one wall of an electrical tunnel, causing alkali-silica concrete degradation that weakened the compressive strength of the affected area by 22 percent. No photos of the affected area have been released.
The tunnel is built into a bedrock foundation, Sheehan said. At the time of construction, the concrete foundation was wrapped in a waterproof membrane that didn't work as well as projected, allowing water to seep through and weaken the concrete. Although the concrete lost strength, it still meets all federal design standards and is still able to maintain support. According to Sheehan, the steel-reinforced rebar inside the concrete provides a high degree of support.
In September, a lesser-known letter was written by the NRC's Region I office to its headquarters, where the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation is based. The letter noted that NextEra conducted concrete core samplings of five other buildings on the site and found evidence of concrete degradation in four of them. The letter requests that the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation evaluate "the current acceptability of NextEra's programs to maintain the integrity of the safety related structures."
The report also notes that Seabrook's initial design never factored in concrete degradation problems and asks, "What, if any, are the specific original design assumptions affected by the presence of (concrete degradation)?"
While confirming that the concrete problem must be remedied, Sheehan has assured the public repeatedly that the situation is not one that has safety concerns. If it were, the NRC would act immediately. The concrete problem has been determined to be of "very low safety significance," according to the NRC's response to Tierney's letter, because the problem did not result in a "loss of safety function."
"We don't see any indication at this point that the structural integrity of those structures is in jeopardy," Sheehan said yesterday. "It's not uncommon for the regional offices to ask for expertise from our headquarters office in Rockville, Md."
But it remains a hot-button issue for many in the region. According to Baddour and Costello, they sent letters after they became worried following a meeting with Newburyport constituents Bruce Skud and Dan Edson, as well as Amesbury resident Joanna Hammond, who alerted them to the alkali-silica problem. Skud and others also met with officials in the two communities that passed resolutions.
Salisbury selectmen and Amesbury's Municipal Council is also considering passing a similar resolution.
Tierney has criticized the NRC's reaction to the problem, saying the agency should take "more immediate and aggressive action to prevent further degradation of Seabrook's safety-related structures."
License extension requests are allowed after a plant has operated successfully for at least 20 years, but not all apply. Currently, about 60 of the more than 104 nuclear power plants have been approved for such extensions, with more in the pipeline. Seabrook filed its request in June 2010.
Although estimated to take from 22 to 30 months to review and approve if all goes well, the NRC's relicensing review will take as long as necessary to be sure of all the safety issues, especially the management of the plants's aging, Sheehan said.
In the case of Vermont Yankee, its application was under review for almost four years before being approved, and Entergy Corporation's Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Massachusetts has been under review for about seven years, Sheehan said.
He said that there have been instances when plant owners decided they would not be able to achieve approval.
"The owners of Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant, in western Massachusetts, decided to decommission the plant rather than seek a license extension," Sheehan said. "That is because it was a first-generation plant that would have had a difficult time meeting the safety criteria now applied to U.S. reactors. Other plant owners have made similar decisions."
In the 1990s, when the NRC studied whether it would be prudent for plants to have their licenses extended by up to 20 years, it determined a sound aging-management program for key safety systems, structures and components was the key to ensuring continued safety.
"That is why this is a central focus of our license-renewal reviews," Sheehan said.
Many are under the misconception that nuclear plant operating licenses are of 40-year durations, because that's the expected lifespan of safe operation by power plants. That notion is incorrect.
"A 40-year license term was selected on the basis of economic and antitrust considerations, not technical limitations," Sheehan said. "In other words, a 40-year period was deemed a reasonable period in terms of financing (the nuclear power plant)."