Economics May Kill Off Aging Nuclear Reactors With PM-Nuclear List
WASHINGTON (AP) _ As owners abandon plans to reopen the aging Yankee Rowe atomic power plant, the struggling nuclear industry faces a new problem: Convincing its critics that similar safety issues aren’t going to be found in other aging reactors up for relicensing.
The Yankee Rowe reactor in western Massachusetts, built in 1961, had been expected to be the first of the early-generation commercial plants to seek a renewal of its federal permit when its 40-year license expired in 2001.
But those plans fell apart when Yankee Atomic, the plant’s owners, shut it down last year after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission raised concerns about the safety of its steel containment vessel.
On Wednesday, the company decided it would not be economical to make the safety improvements and reopen the plant.
As the NRC considers applications - on a plant-by-plant basis - for license renewals, utility executives will have to balance similar economic questions. Industry experts concede that whether a utility seeks license renewal may often depend on what the NRC demands and whether or not required improvements are cost effective.
Nuclear industry critics immediately said Yankee Rowe’s problems were a clear indication that other old plants slated for relicensing may pose more serious safety concerns than either the industry or its regulators contend.
″This was their flagship, the safest and best-run plant in the country, their showpiece, their front-runner in the license renewal process,″ said Diane Curran, an attorney for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The group first raised questions about the cracking potential of Yankee Rowe’s reactor vessel and put pressure on the NRC to examine the issue more closely.
Industry and NRC officials scoffed at suggestions that Yankee Rowe will be a harbinger of things to come when the NRC considers requests from other utilities for an extension of their licenses.
″The decision (by Yankee Power) is not a precedent,″ insisted Phillip Bayne, president of the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, which speaks for the nuclear industry. ″Each plant will be judged on its own merits.″
The industry group has argued repeatedly that older reactors are safe and should be relicensed beyond their original 40-year permit as long as they meet NRC requirements for relicensing.
″The basic answer is that Yankee Rowe is unique,″ said NRC spokesman Frank Ingram. He added that the issues raised at Yankee Rowe ″shouldn’t have any impact on the licensing process.″
″The big problem with Yankee-Rowe was uncertainty,″ said Ivan Selin, the NRC’s chairman. ″We just didn’t have the basic technical information (about the pressure vessel). We know that kind of information on all the other plants.″
There are 21 commercial nuclear reactors other than Yankee Rowe whose 40- year licenses will expire between the years 2001 and 2012, according to industry figures. Owners of many of these reactors will have to decide in the next four of five years whether to seek a license renewal.
Last month Southern California Edison announced it not only will not seek to relicense its aging Unit 1 reactor at San Onofre near San Diego, but will shut it down within two years. Although the permit doesn’t expire until 2004, the utility said it was cheaper to close the reactor than to pay the cost of bringing it up to current standards.
Officials at Atomic Yankee also said their decision was based on economics. Tests to determine the condition of the Yankee Rowe reactor vessel alone would have cost $23 million.
Andrew Kadak, the utility’s president, said the NRC’s technical criteria for restarting the plant ″are not sufficiently defined to justify spending that amount of money.″