A recently released dissenting opinion by seven Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineers came to a startling conclusion: reactors in the United States may have a design flaw that renders the emergency electricity system which provides cooling to the reactor core useless. This can trigger the worst sort of nuclear incident – an unplanned shutdown.
Their findings stemmed from an incident in 2012 when an unbalanced voltage event caused the Byron 2 reactor in Illinois to shut down automatically. An unbalanced electricity flow or open phase event which affected cooling to the reactor core was determined to be the source of the problem. This type of event could lead to motors burning out and could render backup systems virtually useless.
The same year that the findings were released, the NRC sent a notice to other reactor owners about the flaw. However, the Commission did not require that this serious design failure be fixed. It merely called it to the attention of other operators. This design flaw had not been identified in all the years the reactors have been operating. Once it was discovered the NRC nevertheless continued to re license reactors without taking this new information into account or asking operators to fix the problem.
Normally dissenting opinions of NRC staff are handled by procedures within the agency. A 2.206 petition is not the way employees generally communicate with the Commissioners. It is used when those outside the agency want to dispute a finding and bring it to arbitration.
Evidently, the normal standard operating procedure was not satisfactory to this group of engineers. They felt strongly enough about the potential for danger to the public that they were united in demanding that the NRC order mandatory repairs or that reactors be shut down. There have been 13 open phase incidents in the last 14 years some of which have evidently been misdiagnosed. Since it has taken so long to discover this flaw, one can only wonder what other problems remain hidden.
After the design flaw was discovered industry representatives met with NRC staff to negotiate a fix. After all, Entergy was recently granted an exemption from the 10 year pressure test on the containment dome of Unit 2 because of financial hardship. Why should this be different? At this point prepare to hear the usual Greek Chorus from both the industry and the NRC of “No danger to the public.” The engineers who understand how things work in the real world disagree.
Indian Point provides approximately 5% of the electricity that is used in the NYC/Westchester grid. The New York Power Authority has no long term contracts for the purchase of electricity from Indian Point. NYPA provides electricity to municipalities, schools, subways, street lights and airports. They have found cheaper and more reliable deals for the purchase of electricity elsewhere. While Consolidated Edison is under contract with Indian Point it purchases only 560 megawatts of electricity from them. This is 560 megawatts out of the approximately 10,000 megawatts required to run our grid on a daily basis during this time of year.
The New York Department of State, Bureau of Coastal Management recently denied Entergy a permit needed for re licensing based on the fact that it was no longer needed to power our grid and did irreparable harm to the Hudson River. Entergy is appealing the decision.