Deborah Grinnell and Sean Meyer
---- — In a Jan. 29 Viewpoint opinion piece published in The Daily News, Ron Thurlow and Dr. David Gress made the unsubstantiated claim that the “Seabrook Station is absolutely safe” and sought to malign those who have expressed public safety concerns about the plant’s concrete degradation due to ASR (alkali silica reaction).
The reality is that neither the plant’s operator, NextEra, nor the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have provided the public with solid information that would positively reassure the public that the plant is safe and will be for the next 40 years. Indeed, there are many serious concerns and unanswered questions about the extent and severity of the ASR problem, the proposed testing and evaluation, and prospects for a scientifically reliable management and mitigation plan.
Two years ago, the Newburyport-based C-10 Research and Education Foundation and the Union of Concerned Scientists together hired a nationally recognized ASR expert, Dr. Paul Brown, a professor at Penn State University, to provide independent expert analysis about Seabrook’s ASR condition. Neither organization is calling for the shutdown of the plant, although we both question the wisdom of proceeding with the plant’s relicensing given the unresolved safety concerns. Likewise, neither organization is saying the plant is currently unsafe, but rather that we do not believe there is enough information to make the claim Thurlow and Gress have made.
Our primary concern is public safety. The public will be best served if the NRC and NextEra conduct an exhaustive, transparent investigation of the ASR problem, provide the information for an independent review and not rush to judgment or move forward with the plant’s relicensing application until this is completed. A comprehensive inspection of the containment building or spent fuel pool at Seabrook has not been done to verify the extent of ASR.
Over the past two years, Dr. Brown has posed many key questions to the NRC in their Seabrook investigation. The NRC has responded to his questions, often agreed with Dr. Brown’s commentaries, and held a conference call with him to investigate ASR issues in more detail. Among the concerns that Dr. Brown has raised is the fact that there is presently no generally accepted technology to mitigate the effects of ASR within an existing concrete structure. UCS’s and C-10’s most recent commentary and analysis provided to the NRC can be found here — http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/Seabrook-Concrete-Commissioner-letter.pdf.
The discovery of ASR at Seabrook was the first time it was documented in the U.S. nuclear fleet. As a result, the NRC is in unchartered waters and does not have the in-house technical expertise or regulatory track record necessary to make informed decisions to best protect the public.
Since 2009, Seabrook has been operating outside of its current license and no tests or models currently exist to enable the nuclear industry or the NRC to make predictions concerning the progression of ASR and the future structural impacts. Indeed, a summer 2013 report prepared by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Codes and Standards for Repair of Nuclear Plant Concrete Structures: Recommendations for Future Development, uses the example of ASR at Seabrook to conclude that while research has been done, “it has not reached a level that would allow the repair and prediction of service life. A combination of measurement techniques and models is necessary to be able to monitor the progression of any ASR and to predict the remaining service life before and after any repair. Protocols for the selection of repair materials and monitoring also need to be developed.”
In other words, the nation’s top concrete and structural engineering experts say that as of today there simply isn’t enough research to know exactly how to properly repair or manage ASR or predict the future structural integrity of a nuclear plant that suffers from it.
Getting this right is critical, as other nuclear plants may be found to have the same condition and the NRC must establish a sound scientific basis for the testing and monitoring that will be necessary at Seabrook and possibly elsewhere. Tests at Seabrook show that ASR will continue into the future and will therefore continue to impact the structural integrity of Seabrook’s structures. It is critical to have sound, indisputable science determine the fate of Seabrook.
Sean Meyer is the national field organizer for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge. Deborah Grinnell is the research director of the C-10 Research and Education Foundation in Newburyport.