The local nuclear watchdog group C-10 has made a reasonable and timely request of the Seabrook nuclear power plant. It wants the plant to conduct borings and tests of the massive concrete containment vessel during an upcoming refueling.

We hope that the Seabrook plant’s management will agree to the testing or at least demonstrate beyond a doubt that the containment area is not experiencing problems with concrete. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should also see this as an opportunity to further explore Seabrook’s issues.

By the end of this month, the plant will be shut down and will go offline for its periodic refueling, a lengthy task that involves removing the spent nuclear fuel rods and replacing them. This is also typically a time for maintenance of various systems at the plant.

Problems with degraded concrete have been found in various parts of what’s called the “non-nuclear side” of the plant, primarily in underground areas where groundwater comes in direct contact with concrete and attempts to create a water barrier have failed. It should be known whether the problem exists within the nuclear containment area.

The plant’s design splits it into two basic regions — the containment area and the non-nuclear side.

The heart of the plant is the containment area, the great dome that can be seen in the plant’s visual profile. This is where the active nuclear rods are kept, and where water that comes in direct contact with those rods circulates. This is the area that produces the enormous amount of heat that is essential to the plant’s operations. Though the dome gives the visual impression that much of the nuclear plant is above ground, in fact, much of it is below ground level. The entire structure is fully enclosed, and access requires specialized training and protective suits. This is the area that is primarily on our minds when we consider the potential danger of a nuclear plant.

The non-nuclear side of the plant contains everything else, such as the control room and electrical generation system. Through a complicated series of pipes and controls, the heat generated in the containment area is transported to the non-nuclear side’s massive turbines. The turbines produce electricity. This side of the plant is where the concrete degradation has been found, primarily in an underground tunnel that houses one of the plant’s two redundant sets of electrical wires.

While the NRC has assured the public that Seabrook’s operations are safe, it has not been made clear whether the underground portions of the containment area has undergone the same level of scrutiny as the non-nuclear side. The plant shutdown seems to be as good of an opportunity as can be gotten to ensure that the containment area is fully examined.

It makes some logical sense to assume that the underground sections of the containment area may be suffering from the same kind of problem that has caused such a furor on the non-nuclear side. It also seems logical to assume that this would be a far greater problem, given the importance of the containment shield.

We look forward to hearing what the plant’s response will be to C-10’s request.

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