A meeting between officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and NextEra Energy’s Seabrook nuclear power plant mapped out the rest of the evaluation process for the plant’s license extension and renewal application.
The meeting was May 9 at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. Its purpose was to discuss what’s still needed for the agency to make a determination on the application, according to NRC Region 1 spokesman Neil Sheehan.
“It’s not unusual for us to meet with plant owners to discuss where things stand,” Sheehan said. “We want to make sure everyone is on the same page on what needs to be done and if there are any missing pieces.”
Sheehan said the meeting gave NextEra officials an opportunity to update the NRC on issues delaying the agency’s decision on Seabrook Station’s request to extend its license 20 years, from 2030 to 2050.
NRC staff reviewed the outstanding requirements related to the agency issuing a final safety report on the license extension request, according to meeting documents. Those needs not only relate to a unique issue affecting concrete at Seabrook Station, but also issues related to license renewals of any nuclear power plant, including aging management programs for steam generator components and bolt integrity.
The plant came online in 1990 with an operating license that runs through 2030. The NRC allows nuclear power plants to apply for 20-year extensions once they have been running for 20 years. Seabrook Station filed its application in June 2010.
The NRC’s review process for license extensions is rigorous and includes two components: safety and environmental. NRC environmental experts study any potential environmental impact the plant might have if it continues to operate for another 20 years.
In the safety track, the agency looks at the management of the key safety systems, structures and components. The safety review is especially comprehensive as it relates to the aging of these systems to ensure they are maintained and operate as they should and can meet required standards as the plant ages.
License extension evaluations usually take 22 to 36 months of analysis, Sheehan said. For Seabrook Station, however, the process stalled because during the license extension application process, plant employees discovered and reported to the agency the presence of alkali-silica reaction, or ASR, in the concrete walls.
ASR is the major reason the NRC’s review of the plant’s license extension request is stretching on to seven years and counting.
ASR is a slow chemical reaction between the alkaline cement and reactive silica found in some concrete aggregates when moisture is present. It forms a gel in the concrete that expands, causing microcracks that can affect its properties and cause deformation.
ASR usually takes five to 15 years to appear and is common in dams and bridges,
The issue brought immediate increased monitoring from the NRC and complaints from organizations that do not favor nuclear energy, including those asking the NRC to shut down Seabrook Station.
The NRC repeatedly assured the public the plant is safe. The complex’s wall are structurally sound and can still perform their intended functions because the plant’s rebar-reinforced, 2-foot-thick walls where ASR exists still meet federal standards for load bearing, according to NRC officials,
However, the agency also told NextEra the decision on the license extension depends on the ability to show it can address and manage the ASR as the plant ages to ensure the public’s health and safety.
NextEra conducted years of testing, including studies at the Ferguson Structural Engineering Laboratory at the University of Texas. The Ferguson report was a major portion of the amendment NextEra filed in August to its license extension application that discusses how it will manage the ASR.
Sheehan said the NRC is committed to finishing its review of the application amendment by the third quarter of 2018. A final safety report can be expected some time after that, Sheehan said, depending on the results of that review and other plant aging concerns, such as steam generator components and bolt integrity.
Angeljean Chiaramida can be reached at 978-961-3147, at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter @achiaramida1.