Below is the introduction and first chapter from my e book The Great Atomic Lake, public utility deregulation and nuclear power published by the Booklocker in 2000 (www.booklocker.com). You can order the entire 28,000 word book directly from me or visit the Booklocker's website to buy on line. To get a shareware copy send me an email I will e mail† your 89 page book as an attached pdf file that you can print out or read on screen. If you like it, send me some money. The suggested retail price is 6.95$†† And to learn more about Lake Ontarioís nukes† take a cruise -see below.
The Great Atomic Lake Deregulation and Commercial Nuclear Power- introduction
As Californians discovered in the closing days of the old millennium, our nation has arrived at a crossroads in energy policy. The road we now take will have profound impacts on our environment and on the unborn. Deregulation will change the way we produce power. That, in turn, may affect how much our electricity costs, what lethal substances we continue to release into the environment and even what our own health and longevity will be.
The consequences of deregulating electric power production are considerably more serious than† being slammed by the phone company or being bumped from an overbooked flight. They could involve thousands of new deaths from cancer every year. This book focuses on one aspect of the nation's public utility† industry and its deregulation, that of commercial nuclear power. A nuclear generating station is an incredibly† complex engineering marvel that attempts on a heroic scale ( nearly all of the time quite successfully) to defy the second law of thermodynamics. It's also one of the most intricate and expensive methods ever devised to boil water.
The potential for harm by this method of producing electricity is almost unimaginable. The Chernobyl melt down is said to have caused 3000 deaths directly, while it's estimated perhaps 400,000 more in the region will eventually die prematurely. An area of farmland the size of Switzerland is now unusable virtually forever because of radiation contamination. This was the world's most expensive industrial accident with a current a price tag of 350 billion dollars. And the costs will continue to be added up for generations.
Since Chernobyl there have been hundreds of other lesser accidents and radiation releases worldwide involving commercial power. Yet incredibly, even as many of our nation's nukes near the end of their designed life spans, they are receiving operating license extensions and interest in building new nuclear plants is on the rise. And the NRC, charged with oversight of these plants is itself beset by bugetary pressures, a shortage of skilled technicians, and is now changing its inspection process relying on more self reporting and enforcement from the industry itself.†
If you live within fifty miles of† a commercial nuclear power plant as tens of millions of Americans do, you have to wonder† about the wisdom of these policies. But chances are, you who reside within the emergency evacuation zone probably aren't even aware of the issues and problems relating to† deregulation. Information on commercial power plant accidents, errors of operation and† releases of radiation is difficult to access† and is rarely publicized. Municipalities† and states have little say in the regulation of nukes. Under new NRC policies the opportunity for public input and the flow of information to citizens, legislators, investors, and the neighbors of nuclear plants will be even less than it is now.
Lake Ontario is a Great Lake both in an official geographic sense and in truth. When its seemingly unlimited expanses are viewed from shore it appears indeed as an inland sea. Lake Ontario is now known far and wide for its trophy salmon and trout fishery thanks to an on going program of sea lamprey control. People journey from southern New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even from abroad to fish its tributary steel- head runs or to troll its depths for a forty pound Chinook salmon.
It is that seemingly limitless volume of water that also led to Lake Ontario ( and lakes Erie and Michigan and Huron) to becoming the great atomic lakes, a fact many of Lake Ontario's approximately 5.5 million coastal† residents† who drink its water are blissfully ignorant of. Power plants require massive quantities of cold water to re-condense the steam used to drive their turbines and generators, something the Great Lakes have an abundance of. Today more than thirty† U.S. and Canadian nuclear reactors† stand on the great lakes' shores. On Lake Ontario 16 nukes along with† several other facilities make this one of the most nuclear-ized bodies of water in the world, shared and ingested by two nations.
The issues and concerns raised by deregulating nuclear power are of particular concern to this, the Great Atomic Lake, and it is a particularly good place to start exploring them regionally, nationally and globally. While particulars vary, the broader concerns of deregulation apply equally to Lake Ontario, southern California, Great Britain, Canada and to other countries now dealing with deregulation of their electricity markets.
These little publicized issues of deregulation and our nuclear industry are of particular relevance now. Federal legislation shaping the future of the commercial nuclear industry and electric power generation may come to the floor in Congress in 2001. If more Americans knew of the risks involved and of the alternative methods of producing power that potentially exist, they might decide to tell their legislators not to continue down the cross roads choice that is marked with yellow and magenta radiation hazard signs. A formidable nuclear lobby is gearing up now for the fight of its life. Our lives may be at stake too. At this point, though, we do still have a choice.†
Chapter One† Cruising The Great Atomic Lake
†Lake Ontario, the Great Atomic Lake is a big place. Sometimes it seems almost oceanic. It makes its own weather and there is no better place to study that weather and wide sky than twenty miles offshore. The lake is full of hidden mysteries and beauty too. The gleaming silver flank of a fresh caught salmon, the quick grace of a Caspian tern overhead, or the music of a flock of five hundred geese that launch themselves from the water as you paddle up to them on a quiet October day serve to remind us that this is an ecosystem with a life and integrity all its own.
†† And being an ecosystem means it is also an admirable recycling entity. Things that are put into the lake, get around and come back out in the form of PCB's in fish or dioxins in† gulls. Over the last few years there's been a fair amount written about toxins† and the effects of them on Great Lakes ecosystems. There's been a lot less written about radioactivity here. With good reason. It's not too easy to find out about the stuff. And most of us would rather not think about it anyway. Most south shore residents† I speak to react with total surprise when I tell† them there are 16 nuclear plants located around the lake.
We on Lake Ontario are blessed with some of the most geriatric and mechanically troubled nuclear power stations in North America. Four of the eight reactors at Pickering near Toronto were shut down for over two years starting in 1997† because of safety concerns and management problems, the little Ginna plant is one of the country's oldest commercial pressurized water reactors, while Nine Mile One, among the oldest American boiling water reactors, has been on the roster of the NRC's watch list several times. Nine Mile Two, the newest U.S. plant on the lake, has already begun to experience premature aging of many components thanks in part to faulty construction materials
I operate a sailing charter business so I'd like to now invite you aboard our vessel for a cruise around the Great Atomic Lake. We sail now not in search of salmon or trout or a splendid summer sunset, but rather to survey the sixteen high tech steam kettles on its shores that hold within their steel hearts the fires of eternity. We'll set sail first for the lake's bustling heavily populated west end where much of its total shoreline population is concentrated within the so called Golden Horseshoe of the Province of Ontario. After visiting Toronto, Burlington and Hamilton by way of the lake's north coast so as to pass by its nuclear industry, we'll return passing the Ginna plant on Smoky Point† taking a short detour to look over the three plants in Oswego County near our homeport.
†† The first of our Canadian stops is the little city of Port Hope located almost due north of Rochester. Port Hope is home to the CAMECO uranium refinery (still known to my outdated chart by its former name of El Dorado) whose large white cubical building on the harbor's west side helps us home in on the entrance from offshore. Once you get past the railroad tracks and the cement lined harbor, Port Hope is an attractive little city with its pretty clear running river, nineteenth century brick business district and sturdy large homes fronting tree lined streets.
†† Port Hope and its radioactive harbor entered the atomic age more than seventy years ago when radium was extracted from pitchblend ore for medical uses. Uranium for the Manhattan project was also secretly processed here. A few years ago when I visited here with my small sloop "Ariel" a friendly dockmaster at the Port Hope yacht club assigned me a† mooring and apologized for the lack of depth at the harbor's entrance.† The club hadn't been able to get a permit for dredging because the entire basin had been declared a low level rad waste area. Radioactive material from a factory upstream that once produced luminous instrument panels dials for aircraft had contributed contaminants that had worked downstream to settle in the harbor along with fall out and spills from fifty years of refining uranium here.
†† The refinery at Port Hope converts "yellow cake" produced at Blind River on Georgian Bay's shore into uranium dioxide and uranium hexafluoride using a formidable assortment of industrial strength chemicals to do so. The uranium dioxide is then used to fuel the CANDU reactors that are Canada's standardized design for commercial power production. The uranium hexafluoride is exported for enrichment and subsequent use in either the production of bombs or for fuel for nuclear reactors.
†† Large amounts of radioactive material have escaped from the refinery through the years. Some sifted down onto to the town. Some fell† or washed into the harbor† with rain. Some drifted out over the lake and some found its way to a public beach. Much radioactive material was incorporated into fill used for driveways and subdivision lots. And some was used in construction materials. In 1975 a Port Hope school was evacuated after high levels of radon were detected in the cafeteria. It had been built with material containing contamination from El Dorado. At least 800,000 tons of low level waste have been inventoried in the region. It has been dumped into the harbor, placed in open ravines and at various locations around the town. Since Canada has had just as much trouble figuring out what to do with radioactive waste as the U.S. has, the Port Hope material remains on the edge of Lake Ontario until (if) a satisfactory long term storage solution is arrived at.
††† Seventy years of exposure to radioactive materials has taken its toll on the town. In a story published in the fall of 1999 in the Toronto Star detailing a public meeting on† CAMECO's request for a five year license renewal for the refinery the residents urged that the plant be shut down. One person interviewed, now living in Peterborough, a small city north of Toronto, told of growing up in Port Hope with four brothers and sisters. All of his siblings had died of cancer at ages ranging from 53 to 64. He alone had lived to protest renewal of the refinery's license.
†† In early 2000 the Canadian agency charged with overseeing the nation's nuclear industry the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) announced it would begin an epidemiological study of the populations of towns and cities located near sources of radiation in Canada. Several of these sites are on the shore of Lake Ontario. The survey was prompted by persistent reports of high numbers of brain tumors, breast and prostate cancer cases and childhood leukemia cases among the populations living near the Port Hope refinery and the eight reactors at Pickering a short way to the west.
†† According to the AECB's own data, exposures to the general public in some cases approach a third to a half or more the licensed limits of allowable exposure.† One estimate of the increased number of cancers caused by these exposures puts it at 7160 cases of fatal cancer per million people. The number of people suffering from serious debilitating but not deadly health effects was estimated to be more than one person in 10,000 (from a submission to AECB made by Energy Probe concerning the renewal of CAMECOs Port Hope fuel facility operating license AECB-FFOL-225-4 for the Board meeting Dec 16, 1999 authored by Norman Rubin Nov 25, 1999 posted at Energy Probe's website.)† And these projections assumed that low doses of radiation had† a lesser effect than higher doses (a† controversial scientific assumption promoted by the nuclear industry.) These are rates of risk that are considerably higher than those deemed "acceptable" for exposures to toxic chemicals by Canadian law. This double standard prompted the Toronto based environmental advocacy group Energy Probe to charge in that same commentary submitted to the AECB on CAMECO's license extension that "The people of Port Hope are exposed to health risks from CAMECO's activities that would not be tolerated by other regulators or if they came from non-radioactive substances.
†Late in 1999
the license for the Port Hope uranium refinery was renewed.
†† An easy half day sail past Port Hope takes us to Darlington, site of four 935 megawatt power reactors and a tritium recovery facility. These along with the cluster of eight gray toadstool like domes of the 2000 megawatt Pickering station lined up along the east side of the entrance to Frenchmen's Bay make up the majority of Canada's power generation on the shore of Lake Ontario. All of the reactors are of a type known as CANDU's, a standardized design that uses heavy water as a moderator. These plants use fuel that is less enriched than that used in American designs making them theoretically cheaper to fuel. They also have a horizontal steel "calandria" containing tubes for fuel rods and heavy water rather than a vertically oriented reactor vessel. The heavy water acts as a coolant as well as a moderator that slows neutrons from fissioning atoms† allowing for a sustained† controlled chain reaction. Like the U.S. pressurized water reactors, the CANDU heats water that then passes to a heat exchanger much like the steam generators used in some U.S. plants. Here water in a secondary steam loop is heated to steam that then drives the turbine to produce power.
†† The four Darlington CANDUs are among the newest nukes on the Great Lakes, having gone on line between 1989 and 1993. The eight reactors at Pickering were built during two different times. The four units of Pickering A went into operation between 1971 and 1973 and are among the oldest plants on Lake Ontario.† Because they use heavy water as a moderator, the CANDUs produce and release large amounts of tritium during operation, far more than the two types of U.S. designs in general use. According to a report prepared in 1981 for the City of Ottawa by Dr. Gordon Edwards and posted at the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibilities website, www.ccnr.org,, a pressurized or boiling water reactor typically produces 15 to 23 curies of tritium per megawatt of generating power per year. They release about one curie into the environment. (A curie is a large amount of radiation, equal to† 37 billion disintegrations per second of a radionuclide). A 1000 megawatt plant like Nine Mile Two would thus release about a thousand curies of tritium each year. The CANDU designs release twenty times as much tritium in a year of operation. About three quarters of it is vented off into the atmosphere and the remaining portion of it enters Lake Ontario. A 2000 megawatt installation like the stations at Pickering could release about 32,000 curies of tritium into the air. Sometimes tritium also escapes accidentally. In 1992 80,000 curies flowed into Lake Ontario after a massive spill took place at one of the reactors by Frenchmans Bay.
†† Tritium is a fairly short lived radioisotope with a half life of about 12.3 years. It is also weakly radioactive and would seem to be less hazardous than some of the other higher energy radioactive substances produced by power plants. But tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen and so is readily taken up by the body. It can be ingested in water or food or inhaled as water vapor. And it can be absorbed through the skin. Once inside the body it then† can enter many metabolic pathways and is readily incorporated into various cell organelles through out the body. Tritium's biological half life ( the length of time it takes to excrete the radioactive hydrogen from the body) varies from ten days to two years. It can even be incorporated within the cell's very genetic material as part of a DNA molecule, so despite its low energy, it can be very destructive. According to information excerpted from a 1977 report authored by a UN scientific committee that is posted at the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility's website, experimental evidence suggests that even though it is a low energy ionizing substance, it is considerably more effective at initiating cancers than its radioactivity would suggest. Lab animal studies have showed low doses of tritium can cause sterility, microcephaly, stunting and reduced litter sizes. An excerpt posted at the Coalition's www.ccnr.org taken from BEIR III committee on the effects of low level radiation states that doses as low as 3 rads per day caused significant physical effects in rats, while a dose of only .003 rads may have influenced early mammalian development such as delayed righting reflexes.
†† Canada's Atomic Energy Control Board allows large amounts of tritium to be discharged into the lake and several Canadian health advocacy groups have called for tighter standards for tritium in drinking water. Durham Nuclear Awareness, based in Uxbridge Ontario, cites in its quarterly newsletter a 1994 recommendation by a provincial committee seeking to set standards on various chemicals in drinking water that the allowable tritium level should be lowered to 20 becquerels per liter of water. Currently Canada† allows 7000 becquerels per† liter, 350 times more. The 20 becquerel per liter level in drinking water is about ten times the amount of tritium typically found in rain water† falling near Lake Ontario.† This appears to be another example of lenient standards for radioactive substances much like the double standard for exposure limits set for Port Hope's refinery
† Like the U.S. reactors, CANDUs also release other radioactive contaminants into the environment and there have been suggestions that health impacts are occurring near the 12 Canadian reactors by Lake Ontario. A study commissioned by the AECB, the group that is charged with regulating the nuclear industry and that has every reason not to find cancer clusters near nuclear plants, examined childhood leukemia rates within 25 kilometers of the Pickering Station in 1990 and 1991. Excerpts posted at Energy Probe's website (www.nextcity.com/EnergyProbe) in the group's comments on the AECB's draft scope of assessment regarding the start up of the Pickering A units, reveal it found rates in children up to 14 years old that were 40 % higher than the provincial average. Not surprisingly the AECB hastened to assure local residents that this could be the result of simple chance. However, another study also performed in 1991 found almost twice the expected number of Down Syndrome babies born between 1973† and 1988 to women living near the Pickering station. (There were 24 babies born with Down syndrome versus the expected number of 13). Epidemiological studies are imprecise, but when you find several studies pointing in the same direction, your confidence that a real health influence exists increases. (For more on statistics and low levels of radiation see chapter two).According to Durham Nuclear Awareness's newsletter, the AECB had launched an additional study †on health effects to be completed by March 2000.
††† Another difference between Canadian and U.S. reactor design also concerns some of the plants' near neighbors, that of their ability to withstand earthquakes. The eight Pickering units are located squarely atop a fault that runs under Lake Ontario. The plants' builders didn't know the fault was active back in the early 1960s and dismissed the likelihood of a damaging quake so the plants were designed accordingly. Consequently the oldest four reactors have the lowest seismic rating of any nuclear reactors in the northeast. They are rated to withstand an acceleration of just 3% the force of gravity or .03 g. The newer units built a few years later were engineered to withstand .05g. Most U.S. plants were designed (or retrofitted) to achieve a seismic rating of .3 g.
†† At least three faults run near or under the west end of Lake Ontario and there was considerable sometimes heated debate as to whether any were active in the years after the plants were first built. However, several quakes have since settled that issue. In November 1999 a 3.9 magnitude quake rattled the windows of towns near Darlington and Pickering. The epicenter of that quake was estimated to be about six miles offshore from Oshawa and it was felt 70 kilometers away. The year before a considerably stronger quake measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale occurred in† Pennsylvania and was felt along the lake's north shore.
†† A University of Toronto study made by Dr. Arsalan Mohajer and his colleagues has suggested that a quake of up to 7 on the Richter scale is a possibility for the lake's west end. This would be about equal to the power of the 1989 quake that collapsed apartments and freeways in San Francisco. Itís a 1 in 10,000† year event, but says Lea Rumack of Energy Probe "Trouble is nobody knows how far into those 10,000 years we are." A quake of that power would probably cause ground motion levels exceeding even what the newer CANDUs at Darlington and Pickering were designed to withstand.
†† Canada seems very far away when you stand on the south shore of Lake Ontario and look northward. In truth, though, several million Americans live within a relatively short distance of the Pickering and Darlington plants. Indeed, more U.S. shoreline residents on Lakes Ontario and Erie probably live nearer to a Canadian nuke than they do to the plants located in Oswego County. If a really nasty accident were to occur at one of these plants, the lake would prove to be little or no barrier to a plume of radiation were the wind blowing from the north. The radiation cloud released from Chernobyl was tracked around the world and had measurable impacts on juvenile songbird survival in the western U.S.† And that same meltdown rendered radioactive virtually forever an area of land approximately the size of Switzerland. Anything that happens on the north side of Lake Ontario would affect communities hundreds of miles inland on its south shore should the unthinkable happen.
†† The AECB puts the probability of a core meltdown at Pickering as something likely to happen perhaps once in a million years of reactor operation. But according to Dr. Gordon Edwards President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility a group critical of the industry, the unthinkable† might happen somewhere in the Canada considerably before that. Citing prolonged periods of unavailability of the emergency core cooling system and observed failure rates of high pressure piping in the heat transport system that are ten times higher than the government's assumptions, he puts it as being more like 1 in 10,000 reactor years (and recall that there are 8 units at Pickering making the probability of a meltdown by one of them even higher if all are operating.)
†† The standard response by U.S. and Canadian regulators and nuclear plant operators alike is that we have defense in depth through our redundant safety systems and that our plants are far safer than the one in Chernobyl. Some industry advocates say Chernobyl didn't even have a containment structure, however the atomic pile was enclosed within a massive cask like structure that many anti nuclear advocates consider equivalent to a containment vessel. (See appendix for more on how our own North American containment structures could† fail in an accident as severe as that of Chernobyl's plant.)
†† Canada's own regulatory agency, the AECB stated in a 1989 report to the Treasury Department, excerpts of which are posted at the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibilities website, that† "reports of significant events (jargon for potentially serious failures of equipment or procedure at nukes) show that human error plays a part in more than 50% of such eventsÖ.Each year there are a variety of significant events at Canadian nuclear power plants with safety implications. There is a significant backlog of required maintenance, operating documentation is out of date, inspections are incomplete, and deficiencies in operating plants may require design modification."
This is not a report written by an anti nuclear group. This is the regulatory agency itself, the AECB which, like our own NRC is often accused of being conflicted† and weak in its regulation of the industry† by acting as both advocate and regulator.
†† Well, our cruising permit from Canadian customs is about to expire so let's head our boat back south and east to sail past the atomic counties of the lake's south shore, Wayne and Oswego. The Rochester Gas & Electric's R.E. Ginna 500 megawatt plant stands on the lake shore at Smoky Point in Wayne County about twenty miles east of Rochester. Itís the smallest commercial plant on the lake and stands a little over a mile from my childhood home. It's also the plant I spent a winter in as a lowly firewatch. On the nuclear hierarchy† of† job skills and responsibilities only the janitors rated lower than firewatches so I never learned very much about the† plant's operations or engineering shortcomings while working there. I did have the dubious honor of getting "gassed up" once and having to sacrifice my trousers. I went home in a Tyvack suit leaving the hapless polyester pants behind in a trash can.
†† Ginna, like the majority of the 100 or so U.S. plants currently in operation, is a pressurized water reactor.† Like the CANDUs† it has a primary and secondary steam circuit. Instead of a calandria it has a thick steel reactor vessel that stands upright in a cement lined pit and is housed within the reinforced cement containment dome. The vessel has a heavy lid that is unbolted and† lifted off for access to the core and its fuel rods. Once a year the plant is shut down for maintenance† and refueling.
†† In 1982 the Ginna station suffered a steam generator tube rupture that made headlines across the country and set off the sirens around the plant. The incident was considered† as being† a serious one, rated one level below a general emergency and regional area evacuation. It gave us all a bit of a scare that day at the factory where we were bottling apple juice about five miles away.† However, my mother was at home taking a nap and never heard the sirens go off at the end of the road a mile away. So much for the emergency evacuation notification system and turning into the emergency broadcast system to see what to do next. She slept through the whole thing.† The incident was, of course, down played by RG&E's adept public relations staff. However, steam generator tube ruptures actually are potentially quite serious.
†† The steam generator is a big heat exchanger filled with closely spaced thin walled tubes. Ginna has two of these heat exchangers located next to the reactor vessel and heated water under pressure from the reactor circulates through it to pass its heat to water from the "cold side". This, in turn, becomes steam that drives the station's power turbine. For reasons not fully understood these thin walled tubes are subject to corrosion and failure. When one ruptures suddenly, the rapid release of steam can cause vibration and damage to the adjacent tubes. If any of them have already been weakened, they, too, can suddenly fail.
†† The NRC estimates that only about fifteen tubes need to break in order to exceed the plant's ability to make up for lost water in the reactor using its emergency core cooling system. This is the dreaded loss of coolant scenario that with bad luck, could ultimately lead to a meltdown. Also when a tube fails some of the steam from the reactor can eventually escape into the environment. That steam, which has passed as pressurized water through the reactor core† is contaminated by radioactivity. Corroding and cracking steam generator tubes are a widespread and increasing problem among the industry's aging plants. Even as I wrote this in February 2000, a plant near New York City experienced a tube failure very much like the 1982 accident at Ginna. The NRC has found that in a single 18 month interval between refueling and inspection,† that a hundred fold increase in cracking can occur. This unpredictability of the problem is what makes these failures so dangerous.
†† The Ginna plant finally replaced its steam generators a few years ago, clearing the way for its owners to request a license extension from the NRC. But the plant also has another safety issue, not so easily dealt with, that of embrittlement of the thick stainless steel rector vessel. Embrittlement isn't well understood but it seems to result from the intense radiation that the steel is exposed to. The vessel becomes less ductile and so is less able to expand and contract with the changes in pressure and temperature that are part of the normal operating environment. The concern is that if the emergency core cooling system had to be called on, perhaps after several† steam generator tubes had ruptured or for some other reason, the sudden change in temperature and pressure could cause a catastrophic failure of the vessel. Since this is the very heart of the reactor and contains tons of deadly highly radioactive material such a failure would almost certainly lead to another Chernobyl scenario. (see appendix one for more on the NRC's model for predicting the meltdown scenario and how containment could possibly fail allowing the release millions of curies of radioactivity.)
†† Embrittlement is not a problem limited to the Ginna station. It is a "generic" issue with many plants across the country experiencing the problem. So how long can a plant operate with one of these weakened reactor vessels? That's the 300 billion dollar question. No one knows.
†† A sweet west wind has begun to blow, wrinkling the lake's calm surface upon which we have been drifting while we gaze upon the large institutional-green box containing much of the Ginna power plant. Let's get the main up and head for home. But first we have one more shoreline nuclear site to visit, that of Nine Mile Point, an hour or so of sailing east of the little lakeside city of Oswego.
†† Three large stations have been built here, the newest of which was equipped with a massive cooling tower visible for thirty miles or more in clear weather. All three plants are so-called BWR's, boiling water reactors, designed by General Electric. Nine Mile 1 is a 610 megawatt plant and was finished in 1969 and is one of the oldest BWR's in the country. Fitzpatrick one of the few nuclear plants in the nation built by a public agency, the New York Power Authority rather than a private investor owned utility, is a 780 megawatt that went on line in 1975. Nine Mile Two, a 1080 megawatt plant† built at a cost of over 6 billion dollars, went on line in 1988. Nine Mile One and Two were owned all or in part by the Niagara Mohawk corporation in early 2000 when all three plants were in the process of changing owners. Nine Mile One and Fitzpatrick are Mark One models.
†† BWRs†† operate quite differently than CANDUS or the more common U.S. pressurized water designs originally created for navy ship and submarine power plants. There are about 35 BWR's currently operating around the country and critics say they are a cheap design and are the "dirtiest" of the three types of plants. In a BWR there is no secondary steam loop or heat exchanger. The water is heated and boiled inside the reactor itself and then goes directly to the turbine. While it is a simpler system with fewer parts to go wrong, it also means there is one less physical barrier between the outside world and the radioactive reactor core, and the steam driving the turbine has the potential to become contaminated with radioactivity.
†† The older Mark One's also have a less robust containment structure than either the CANDUS or the pressurized water reactors. A large inverted light bulb shaped steel "dry well" surrounds the reactor vessel. A layer of concrete on this provides additional shielding to block radiation. The reactor stands inside this, surrounded by a so called torus or wet well at its base. This is partially filled with water and would then serve as a heat sump and "back up" for the possibility of a loss of coolant accident. If such an accident occurred, escaping steam would be directed into the torus to hopefully condense. This would prevent a build up of pressure that could then cause a possible failure of the surrounding steel dome.
†† As long ago as 1972 according to a fact sheet† posted at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service group's website, the NRC's safety experts were recommending this design be discontinued and not accepted for new construction permits. In 1985 a NRC analysis concluded that the Mark One containment was "rather likely" to fail within the first few hours following a core melt.
†† In 1986 Harold Denton, then NRC's top safety official, estimated a possibly 90 percent probability of containment failure for the Mark One. This prompted an industry work group to design a "direct torus vent system" that was then installed at all Mark Ones in an attempt to fortify their dubious safety systems. This includes a reinforced vent pipe installed in the torus. In the event of a catastrophic accident it will hopefully release radioactive steam and gases directly to the atmosphere through a three hundred foot stack. This would preserve the basic integrity of the containment vessel and perhaps keep at least some of the radioactivity within the plants.
†† Critics and some near neighbors of† BWRs view this as a serious compromise of the concept of containment. The containment structure was supposed to be a passive fool proof back up system. In the Mark One it has been superceded by a system requiring human action and human control with all the attendant risks of operator error and technical failure. (Remember the Canadian AECB estimates that 50% of its serious events were due to operator error).
†† The older BWR'S like Nine Mile One and Fitzpatrick also have another industry wide problem that of cracking core shrouds. Paul Gunter in a 1996 report posted at NIRS website describes these failures. The core shroud is a structure that, like the reactor vessel in a PWR, encloses the fuel rods and assures coolant flow through the core. It also supports the control rods and keeps them in alignment. It is a huge cylinder of 1.5 inch thick stainless steel 17 feet high and 15 feet in diameter. It is made of curved plates welded together and it's these welds that are the problem. Since 1993 cracks have been appearing in core shroud welds† at reactors across the country. Nine Mile One has† one of the worst cases of cracking yet seen.
†† According to the NRC if a cracked weld were to completely give way, there would be a "loss of lateral support for the fuel assemblies". A misalignment of only a fraction of an inch could then possibly cause the fuel rods to jam when the operators tried to insert them. This would prevent the rods from dropping into the core to stop the chain reaction. If circumstances were right, this could set the scene for a catastrophic accident and release of radiation.
†† Core cracking, like steam generator tube ruptures, is not fully understood. After it was first observed, bad water chemistry was offered as an explanation, but then plants with water chemistry within proper design limits also began to experience cracked welds. The Union of Concerned Scientist's David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, states in a report posted on the group's website "We don't truly know what's going on and operating a plant when we don't know what's going on is cause for concern." One former NRC manager, Kenneth C. Rodgers is quoted by† the Citizen's Awareness Network's newsletter The Radioactivist as stating in reference to the various issues associated with aging nuclear plants such as core shroud cracking that† "we have a loaded gun accident waiting to happen."
†† In Germany an aged GE BWR developed cracks similar to those seen at Nine Mile One. The regulators refused to extend the plant's license and it has since been shut down. However, Niagara Mohawk has said it will push its weakened plant until the cracks penetrate 80 %† of the steel wall. The Radioactivist writes that Niagara Mohawk and the NRC are gambling with upstate New York's and southern Ontario's futures as they "push Nine Mile One where no reactor has gone before". It's an exploration of metallurgy and patchwork engineering ingenuity that makes some of the plants' neighbors join me in checking each day for that plume of vapor rising into the sky above Nine Mile Two to see which way the wind is blowing.