FPL is running an experimental reactor in a weak regulatory environment

Stephen Smith | March 10, 2014 | Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Nuclear, Utilities

SACE High Risk Energy Choices Program Director, Sara Barczak, contributed to this post.

Recently across the Southeastern United States, we have witnessed and experienced what happens when cavalier energy companies team up with weak government regulators. From the Dan River Duke coal ash spill in North Carolina to Freedom Industry’s chemical spill to process coal that hit Charleston, West Virginia and now to Florida Power & Light (FPL), companies are taking advantage of weak regulatory oversight. Independent experts hired by SACE have learned that for six years, FPL has operated one of its two St. Lucie nuclear reactors (Unit 2) with a radically changed design to its steam generators that was never analyzed for its safety by its federal overseer, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Even after inspections showed serious damage to the steam generators during three different outages since 2009, the NRC gave FPL a pass every time.

Today, in the interest of the safety of the more than 1 million people living within 50 miles of FPL’s St. Lucie Unit 2 reactor, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) demanded a hearing by the NRC on design changes that may be at the root of FPL’s growing problem with its steam generators. If the NRC had been doing its job, FPL’s removal and substitutions of major safety components would have been aired six years ago. Now SACE charges that the NRC’s ongoing approval of Unit 2’s operation amounts to a de facto amendment of FPL’s operating license for St. Lucie Unit 2. SACE has asked the NRC to suspend the restart of the reactor (which is now shut down in a refueling outage), pending resolution of our hearing request. Our hearing request and stay motion was supported by an expert witness declaration from nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen with Fairewinds.

Diagram illustrates the design of a typical CE PWR steam generator with a stay cylinder and egg crate supports, which were removed in St. Lucie Unit 2, p. 7, Gundersen declaration.

What does this mean?
From the information that has been unearthed and carefully analyzed, we believe that FPL has been operating its St. Lucie 2 reactor in a manner that is clearly outside of the requirements of its operating license with the NRC – that FPL has made fundamental design changes to this reactor, and notably not to reactor Unit 1, that are causing rapid and severe degradation of the steam generators, which poses a real and serious threat to public safety and health. We are also arguing that the NRC, the federal regulator charged with ensuring the safe operation of nuclear power plants across the country, has failed to protect the public by allowing FPL to continue running Unit 2 without having publicly aired and discussed these fundamental design changes to crucial safety systems.

SACE contends that under NRC regulation 10 C.F.R. § 50.59, FPL’s drastic alterations to the original and renewed design of the Unit 2 steam generators required a license amendment before FPL could implement them. By permitting FPL to operate with such significant design changes, even after three successive outage inspections of the replacement steam generators showed a high and increasing rate of damage to their steam generator tubes, the NRC has effectively amended FPL’s license and allowed FPL to conduct an untested and dangerous experiment with public safety. Thus, we want the following things to happen:

  • A 100% inspection of the steam generator tubes by FPL and publication of the results;
  • Publication of the results of the inservice inspection planned by the NRC Staff during the refueling outage; and
  • Completion of the adjudicatory proceeding we requested in the Hearing Request.

Safety First

Evacuation zones around St. Lucie nuclear plant

Safety is our paramount concern, as it should be for all parties involved and any interests that may criticize our motives. Continued operation of Unit 2 would pose an unacceptable safety risk, because the NRC doesn’t understand how the reactor safety systems will run when major components have been removed or replaced with new and different components. It cannot be forgotten or glossed over that the now-closed reactors at San Onofre in California, which were of similar design and were also modified in similar ways led to extreme degradation of their steam generators. On January 31, 2012 this degradation led to an actual rupture of a steam generator tube in reactor Unit 3 and subsequent uncontrolled release of radiation into the environment. Thankfully reactor San Onofre’s Unit 2 was shutdown for a planned outage, just as St. Lucie Unit 2 is currently. This planned refueling outage at St. Lucie began last week with restart scheduled for April 2, 2014. Thus, FPL has an ideal opportunity to conduct inspections of the degraded steam generator tubes and report its findings to the regulator, the NRC. And the NRC has the ability to scrutinize these findings and make them publicly available and allow for public scrutiny before the reactor comes back online.

Demand Proper Regulatory Oversight
SACE filed our requests today with the NRC as a means to ensure proper regulatory oversight. We believe FPL has misled the public by failing to properly document the modifications they made to safety components of St. Lucie Unit 2. The NRC now knows about these modifications, but has gone along with them. And it has failed to hold the proper public hearings that would allow a thorough  analysis of the root cause of the problem that has led to degradation of the steam generators. With public safety clearly at risk, now is the time for the NRC to reestablish regulatory oversight.

Florida’s Consumers are Harmed, Again
From our analysis, we have shown that FPL changed the reactor design of St. Lucie Unit 2 and misled the public about these changes. Those changes have now damaged a key component within the reactor, the steam generators, as more damage has been identified with every fuel cycle. FPL used early nuclear cost recovery money collected from their ratepayers to up-rate the reactor, which has increased the damage and very likely shortened the life of those damaged steam generators, knowing all along that there is little to no risk to their shareholders because the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) is weak and overly compliant to what the big power company desires. Remember, FPL shareholders will bear no financial liability for these damaged components as FPL has already recovered the costs from the project. Even though FPL’s actions led to the premature degradation of the Unit 2 steam generators, we predict that FPL will get the eventual repair or replacement costs covered at ratepayer expense because they will (again) mislead the PSC about why all this happened in the first place.

What are our legal contentions?
SACE’s hearing request includes two contentions. Our first contention asserts that the NRC Staff has conducted and is conducting a de facto license amendment proceeding regarding FPL’s changes to the Unit 2 replacement steam generators (RSGs), on which SACE is entitled to a hearing. Our second contention asserts that the changes made by FPL to the steam generator design for Unit 2 fail to comply with NRC safety regulations or the NRC’s reasonable assurance standard for protecting public health and safety, and therefore the NRC Staff’s de facto amendment of the Unit 2 license should be revoked and FPL should be prevented from restarting the reactor until it has made any design changes necessary to demonstrate that the reactor is safe to operate.

In conclusion, public safety needs to be the driving factor in all decisions that are made moving forward—as this has clearly not been the case for years now at St. Lucie Unit 2. The worst case, an accident, such as what occurred at San Onofre, cannot be risked. The NRC cannot allow further escalation in damage of the steam generator tubes. Policy makers, regulators, and utilities can no longer be complicit in this crime.

Additional Background: What happened?
Below is a summary of events pertinent to our legal argument. We encourage you to read them in full within our Hearing Request, beginning on p. 6, as the list below was edited back:

  • The NRC licensed St. Lucie Unit 1 in 1976 and St. Lucie Unit 2 in 1983. Originally, both reactors had steam generators that were designed and built by Combustion Engineering (CE).   Both Units had two essentially identical steam generators.
  • A stay cylinder was installed in each of the original St. Lucie steam generators. … The original steam generators (OSGs) at Unit 2 also employed an egg crate or lattice design to support the heat transfer tubes. FPL chose the egg crate design for the specific purpose of reducing the potential for tube vibration.
  • FPL applied for renewal of both St. Lucie operating licenses in 2001. FPL’s license renewal application listed the tubesheets, stay cylinders, divider plates, U-tubes, and lattice tube supports among the reactor coolant system (RCS) components that are subject to aging management review. …
  • The NRC Staff’s Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for renewal of the St. Lucie operating license evaluates FPL’s program for managing aging of the safety-related components of the steam generators, including tubesheets, stay cylinders u-tubes, tube supports, and other steam generator components. … Thus, the AMP and the Steam Generator Integrity Program and the specific components they cover – including the stay cylinder, the tube sheet, and the lattice tube supports — are incorporated into the technical specifications for St. Lucie Unit 2.
  • In 1998, FPL replaced the Unit 1 OSGs with new replacement steam generators (RSGs) manufactured by Babcock & Wilcox (B&W). The RSGs were almost identical in design to the CE OSGs. FPL did not seek a license amendment, but rather claimed to be exempt from filing a license amendment application under 10 C.F.R. § 50.59.  The design of the RSGs included a stay cylinder and the central region of the tube sheet directly above the stay cylinder was solid steel with no additional tubes added. The only significant difference between the OSGs and the RSGs appears to be the replacement of Alloy 600 with Alloy 690 in the manufacture of the tubes.
  • In 2007, FPL replaced the Unit 2 CE OSGs with new ones manufactured by AREVA. As it had done in 1998 on Unit 1, FPL again did not seek a license amendment, but rather claimed to be exempt from filing a license amendment application under 10 C.F.R. § 50.59. …
  • A careful review of subsequently issued documents reveals, however, that in fact the Unit 2 RSGs employed significant design changes. First, it is now clear from correspondence related to the San Onofre steam generators that the RSGs no longer contained the stay cylinders that were part of the OSG design discussed in the Final Safety Analysis Report (FSAR) as structural support for the reactor coolant system and included in the AMP.  Second, documents related to subsequent inspections of the St. Lucie Unit 2 steam generators also show that AREVA added 588 new tubes to the original 8,411 tubes, now totaling 8,999 tubes.  Third, inspection-related documents refer to “Seven (7) Trefoil Broached Plates” in the RSGs, despite the fact that “plates” were specifically excluded from the original steam generator design. Finally, in order to accommodate the 588 new tubes, it is reasonable to infer that the region of the tubesheet that had been directly above the stay cylinder was now perforated with 588 new holes.
  • The purpose of the stay cylinder was to prevent tubesheet flexing. The RSG in St. Lucie Unit 2 has a tubesheet with more holes in its center precisely where more flexing is more likely to occur.  The failure by the NRC to address this weakened tubesheet raises concerns about the safety and integrity of Unit 2’s pressure boundary in the event of a steam line break accident.  In addition, the substitution of broached plates for egg crate tube supports creates potential for greater vibration of tubes.
  • FPL also submitted an Updated Final Safety Analysis Report (UFSAR) to the NRC. The UFSAR is likely to contain more details about the RSGs. But the UFSAR was withheld from public disclosure. Although SACE has requested a copy, the NRC is still reviewing whether or not to release it and how much of the document it should actually release.
  • In 2010 and 2011, FPL applied to the NRC for Extended Power Uprates (EPUs) for St. Lucie Units 1 and 2, respectively. The NRC approved these analyses in separate SERs. FPL conducted a safety analysis to determine whether the power uprate for each unit would compromise the reactor pressure boundary.
  • The scope of FPL’s analysis for Unit 1 covered components that had been in the OSGs and were also included in the RSGs, i.e., the stay cylinders and lattice supports for the steam generator tubes. In contrast, in describing the “entire pressure boundary” that was subject to the safety analysis for the Unit 2 EPU, FPL made no mention of the stay cylinder or lattice supports that had been removed from the Unit 2 RSGs; nor did it analyze the effect of their removal.  Instead, FPL wrote the analysis as if those components had never existed.
  • After FPL applied for its St. Lucie EPUs, and prior to NRC approval of those EPUs, the San Onofre RSGs – whose design is similar to the St. Lucie Unit 2 RSGs – were found to be critically flawed and were removed from service. Despite the NRC knowledge of the significant safety failure at San Onofre and the similarity of the St. Lucie steam generators, the NRC went forward with the approval of the St. Lucie Unit 2 EPU.
  • While the RSG tubes at St. Lucie Unit 1 showed nominal wear over the past decade, an unusually high number of tubes in the Unit 2 RSGs exhibited wear in 2009 during the very first inspection after the RSGs were installed. Demonstrations of tube wear continued to increase in subsequent inspections in 2011 and 2012. In the latest inspection in September 2012, an astonishing 2,211 steam generator tubes in SG A showed 7,646 wear indications and 1,503 steam generator tubes in SG B showed 3,988 wear indications.
  • Almost all of the wear indications occurred at the antivibration bars and at the tube support plates that had been installed for the first time with the RSGs. Despite these indications that the altered design of the RSGs was creating an unacceptable degree of vibration in the steam generators, the NRC allowed the reactor to resume operation after each outage and conducted no evaluation of how the unusual level of damage to the steam generators could be related to the 2007 design changes.
  • St. Lucie was shut down for a scheduled maintenance outage on March 3, 2014. FPL has committed to inspect 100% of the steam generators … This will be the first outage following a complete operating cycle under Unit 2’s extended power uprate. FPL has not committed to provide the results of the inspection before starting the reactor again. Restart is scheduled for April 2, 2014.
  • Taken together, the design changes made by FPL to the RSGs drastically altered basic features of the RCPB, which constitutes a fission product boundary protecting the public from accidental releases of radioactivity. Therefore these design changes required an amendment to FPL’s operating license under 10 C.F.R. § 50.59. Nevertheless, neither FPL nor the NRC Staff has analyzed how their removal or alteration will affect the behavior of the Reactor Coolant Pressure Boundary (RCPB) and the safety of Unit 2.
  •  During the six years that have passed since December 2007, when FPL installed the two RSGs in St. Lucie Unit 2, the NRC Staff repeatedly has made regulatory decisions to allow FPL to operate the reactor in spite of the fact that the new design of the RSGs put the reactor’s operation outside of both the original design basis and the license renewal design basis. At the same time, the Staff has continued to use FPL’s outage inspections as an opportunity to gather information about the reasons for the poor performance of the RSGs since they were installed.
  • This information exchange between the NRC and FPL highlights the lack of regulatory scrutiny provided by the NRC during the RSG replacement, and demonstrates that the NRC relied upon the assurances of FPL in the 10 C.F.R. § 50.59 processes rather than perform its own adequate analysis. Despite FPL’s clear departure from its design basis, and despite the disturbing number of wear indications revealed by the inspection, the NRC decided not to take further regulatory action.
  •  In evaluating FPL’s 2010 EPU license amendment applications for Units 1 and 2, the Staff also implicitly acknowledged the design differences between the Unit 1 RSGs (which kept the stay cylinders and lattice tube supports) and the Unit 2 RSGs (which eliminated those components), by conducting a different type of safety analysis for each unit’s steam generators. In its EPU review, the Staff also took into account the results of the 2011 outage inspection, in which increased wear of steam generator tubes was observed. Again, despite the design changes to St. Lucie Unit 2, the continuing occurrence of wear on the steam generators, and the similar problems identified on San Onofre Units 2 and 3, the NRC Staff approved the power uprate for St. Lucie Unit 2 on September 24, 2012.
  • In November 2012, FPL conducted its third inspection following installation of the Unit 2 steam generators, and found even more tubes with signs of wear. … The NRC did not conclude its review of all of this information until January 2014, more than one year after the inspection had taken place. As it had done previously, the NRC Staff concluded that despite the unusual number of wear indications, no technical issues currently warrant follow-up.  Thus, once again the NRC implicitly amended FPL’s operating license for Unit 2 by approving continued operation in spite of the known differences between the OSG and RSG designs, and in spite of the growing problem of tube generator wear.
  • The NRC’s process for amending FPL’s operating license for St. Lucie Unit 2 is ongoing.   Once again, the NRC plans close oversight of steam generator inspections during the current outage at Unit 2.  In a February 19, 2014, meeting between the NRC Staff and the Steam Generator Task Force, the NRC Staff stated that FPL had committed to inspect 100% of the steam generator tubes. The NRC Staff has also sent FPL a request for information about the inspection and a notice of its plan to conduct a “baseline inservice inspection (“ISI”) at Unit 2 during the refueling outage.” Under FPL’s renewed license, the ISI will cover components that are listed in FPL’s AMP. Thus, the inspection will cover the stay cylinder and lattice tube supports, components that have been removed in the RSGs.  Therefore, if the NRC approves the results of the ISI, once again it will implicitly be approving the operation of Unit 2 outside its design basis.
  • This alternating pattern of information-gathering and regulatory decision-making by the NRC shows not only that the NRC has informally amended FPL’s operating license on multiple occasions by approving continued operation with equipment that is clearly outside the reactor’s design basis; and that the approval process continues as the Staff continues to gather and assess information about the faulty RSGs.
  •  The Staff is about to conduct an inservice inspection, required by the Unit 2 technical specifications, of safety components that are included in the technical specifications.  But some of those components were removed or altered by FPL when it replaced the steam generators. Therefore, in conducting the inspection and analyzing its results, the NRC Staff must necessarily choose between approving a change to the technical specifications or requiring FPL to change the RSG design to conform to the technical specifications. Either one of these choices would constitute a licensing action. SACE seeks a hearing on that prospective licensing action and on the licensing actions that have preceded it.

Where can I find this information?
Find today’s hearing request here; stay motion here; and Arnie Gundersen’s expert declaration here.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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