To the editor:
Quebec has closed its only nuclear power plant because of a number of problems that have increased cost, including repairing concrete degradation. Hydro-Quebec considered refurbishing its Gentilly-2 nuclear plant until the costs of doing so skyrocketed from $2 billion in 2008 to $4 billion by 2012. The utility determined that is it is not worth the investment, so it shuttered the plant in December 2012. Instead, Hydro-Quebec will spend $1.8 billion to decommission the plant over the next 50 years.
One of the plant’s problems was that it was plagued by alkali-silica reaction (ASR) — the same problem that plagues the Seabrook plant. ASR is a chemical reaction that occurs when a certain type of concrete comes in contact with groundwater. ASR hardens the concrete and creates cracks, potentially weakening the concrete. It is prevalent in key “safety” structures at the Seabrook plant. Weakened concrete is vulnerable to earthquakes. Notwithstanding this, the owner Next-Era applied to the NRC to extend the life of the plant from 2030 to 2050.
In a chilling 2010 report, Canada’s version of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wrote that “special attention is needed for the containment structure in the longer term— the containment (building) concrete suffers from a common type of concrete decay called alkali-silica reaction. The potential mechanical consequences of the chemical reaction, in terms of ultimate resistance of structural elements and overall structural behavior, are unknown.”
It is foolhardy for the plant’s investors, and dangerous for the 250,000 people who live within 10 miles of the Seabrook plant, to proceed with relicensing. No one knows how much repairing the ASR problem will drive up costs, but whatever it is, we all know it will be beyond what anyone could have imagined. Our Canadian friends had the sense not to push the boundaries of cost and safety by extending the aging plant’s life when its concrete was already degraded.
What we do know is that ASR is a novel problem for U.S. nuclear reactors so the Seabrook owners and the NRC staff are dealing with uncharted territory. As the owners and the NRC push the plant through relicensing come hell or high water, they may be recklessly positioning us for our own Fukushima.
INGRID and WAYNE SANBORN