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How the decisions are made on extending the life of nuclear reactors
71 of 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. have gotten license extensions

Tim Rudell
Cooling tower at Davis Besse Nuclear Power Station. The plant went on line in 1978. It's sister plant, Perry, was on line commercially in 1987. Both are owned by Akron-based First Eneregy
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Ohio’s two nuclear power plants want to live on for at least another 20 years. Davis-Besse and Perry (both are on the shores of Lake Erie, owned by Akron-based First Energy, and aging) are putting in for license extensions with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  And  WKSU’s Tim Rudell says there are some surprises in what the commission can and cannot consider in making its decision.

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Nothing to do with projected life-span
The first thing to understand is that the original 40-year life of the license has nothing to do with a projected life-span for the plants. 

Page 47 of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Information Digest, reads: “Economic and antitrust considerations, not nuclear technology, determined the original term for reactor licenses.“ So finance, not fission determined the time frame.

A constant state of adjustment
But, Howard Whitcomb, a Port Clinton lawyer who has spent most of his professional life in the nuclear energy field, says there was more to it.

 “They came up with a rather arbitrary figure; although many of the systems were designed for a much longer than that, the 40 year, I think, was to encompass the existing design but the anticipated changes that would have to happen. Nuclear facilities are dynamic systems. They are not static.  In other words, you’re not going to design a redundant backup system and expect that it is not going to undergo changes.”

Ann Marie Stone is chief of license review in the regulatory commission’s Region 3, which includes Ohio. At a recent visit to Oak Harbor, home of Davis-Besse, she said Whitcomb is right about nuclear plants being in a constant state of adjustment due to everything from new technology to new rules; and she said that is a factor in how licensing extension is handled. “A plant that was licensed 30 years ago, for example, is not the same plant today. There are things that have changed.”

Environmental and technical factors
Stone says the review looks at the plants and reactors as they exist today, and are most likely to be in the future; and the review falls into to two broad categories. “One is environmental, which looks at the environmental impact of going the additional 20 years: looking at replacement power; looking at what is the impact on the socio-economic of the area. Then, you have the technical. There were some evaluations done to the 40 year, and they need to be done to 60 years, and in sometimes even beyond that.”

She says everything from the original design forward is reviewed, but special attention goes to areas that aren’t thought about at other times. “We really focus on passive equipment. The safety-related equipment is heavily inspected in the current inspection program. It’s the passive items that we don’t look at as extensively. In the license renewal space we’re looking at it as ‘can that piece of equipment, a waste water pipe for example, as it’s getting older; can that impact a safety related piece of equipment’?”

What about management?
During his career, Howard Whitcomb worked for both the NRC and for Davis-Besse-Perry owner First Energy. He’s now a critic of both organizations. He says while the technical reviews for license renewal are well and good, something else should be even more heavily considered. “There’s a technical aspect and a management aspect. The NRC, in terms of the relicensing has to look at how has the management dealt with regulations, and how have they operated the plant.”

Both the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear power stations have had repeated and serious problems over the years. They have included a criminal case and long shutdowns of Davis-Besse to deal with severe damage to the reactor head, and problems with safety training at Perry.

But, Ann Marie Stone says a record of difficulty is not normally part of the license renewal review because such things are already more urgent.  “That would be a concern under the current license. If a licensee is not following regulations, if their operators are creating errors, that needs to be addressed now.

A driver's license analogy
And she says, while license renewals are done case-by-case, they don’t usually decide an operator’s “suitability” for the future based on how they performed in the past. “A good analogy would be your driver’s license. Well, you got pulled over for speeding. Now, it’s up for renewal of your driver’s license. They don’t take a look at that and say, ‘Well, you’ve had a speeding ticket, you’ll possibly have a speeding ticket again in the future, therefore I’m not going to renew your license.'”

The review process for a license extension normally takes 20 to 24 months. However, final decisions for Davis-Besse, Perry and about three dozen other reactor license extensions won’t come until after the NRC satisfies a separate federal court order – assessing the risk when it comes to storing spent fuel rods, regardless of where they originated.  

Related WKSU Stories

Public meeting shown how regulators came to their decision
Friday, August 10, 2012

Davis Besse's renewal is not affected by NRC suspension, for now
Wednesday, August 8, 2012

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