Nuclear Power Russian Roulette: The Game Continues
On December 1, the Illinois legislature passed a bill that will extend the life of the Quad Cities nuclear-power plant at Cordova, Illinois, for another 10 years. Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed the measure into law on December 7. At stake are 800 jobs on-site and thousands of ancillary jobs wholly dependent on plant workers. An article by Thomas Geyer published in the Quad-City Times on June 2, 2016, reported that the annual payroll at the Cordova plant is some $75 million, and its yearly Rock Island County property-tax bill amounts to nearly $8 million. Thus, the short-term preservation of jobs and revenue trumped common sense.
Back on June 1, Exelon, which owns the Cordova nuclear plant and the Clinton nuclear plant in central Illinois, announced it would shutter them both: Clinton on June 1, 2017, and Cordova on June 1, 2018. Combined, the two plants lost $800 million over the past seven years.
In an Illinois Times article dated June 16, 2016 Patrick Yeagle explained: “One result of a deregulated market is that most consumers opt for electricity from the cheapest possible source. For many years, coal-fired power plants were the cheapest to operate, although coal’s dominance has lately been supplanted by natural gas as environmental regulations tighten on coal emissions and hydraulic fracturing brings previously inaccessible pockets of natural gas to market. Compared with either fuel, however, nuclear power is more expensive and thus less utilized.”
The bill passed on December 1 not only saved the Cordova plant but will also provide Exelon $235 million annually for the next 13 years. Progress Illinois published a report by Ellyn Fortino on January 23, 2015, that noted: “Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said that ‘Exelon’s nuclear plants that aren’t economically competitive can be retired without added costs to Illinois consumers, without hurting reliability, and with more job creation by growing clean renewable energy and energy efficiency.’”
Completed in 1972, the Cordova plant is long past its decommissioning date. Its two reactors are GE Mark 1s, which have had a troubled history. WashingtonsBlog.com on December 11, 2013, reported: “The New York Times reported that other government officials warned about the dangers inherent in GE’s Mark 1 design: ‘In 1972, Stephen H. Hanauer, then a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission, recommended that the Mark 1 system be discontinued because it presented unacceptable safety risks. Among the concerns cited was the smaller containment design, which was more susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup in hydrogen – a situation that may have unfolded at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Later that same year, Joseph Hendrie, who would later become chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC], a successor agency to the atomic commission, said the idea of a ban on such systems was attractive. But the technology had been so widely accepted by the industry and regulatory officials, he said, that ‘reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power.’”
On April 8, 2013, following the Fukushima disaster, in which Mark 1s played a prominent role, Cape Downwinders Cooperative published a lengthy report by Paul Koberstein and Robin Klein detailing the GE reactor’s checkered career. They write: “In 1975, a GE engineer named Henry E. Stone wrote a memo about the variety of failures, technical problems and serious structural defects at GE reactors that had not been resolved. The memo was labeled ‘strictly private’ and ‘GE confidential: Subject to protective order, Zimmer litigation.’ But Stone’s supervisor, A.J. Bray, general manager of GE’s nuclear reactor division, was taken aback by what he described as the memo’s ‘negative tone.’ ‘If any of our customers ever get a copy of this, we are in real trouble,’ Bray wrote.”
The Mark 1’s containment vessels were found to be dangerously inadequate and needed expensive retrofits. There are other issues. Koberstein and Klein wrote: “Another serious unresolved problem with GE containment systems has emerged: the discovery of gas bubbles trapped in the pipes of the reactor’s emergency core cooling system. These bubbles can disable or damage the system’s pumps when they are trying to cool the superheated reactor during an accident.
“If the pumps ingest gas, they ‘may become inoperable,’ according to a study of the problem by scientists at Purdue University. A pump that swallows air can overheat, causing its casing to thermally expand, exceeding tolerances, the NRC has found.
“‘Since these components typically have tight tolerances, a significant amount of thermal expansion will cause these tolerances to be exceeded,’ said an NRC engineer, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by his employer.
“Despite more than 10 years of study, the NRC has not yet found a solution to the gas bubble problem. Nevertheless, it continues to allow the GE plants to keep on running. The results could be catastrophic.”
The Mark 1’s sorry list of defects eventually led to litigation. Koberstein and Klein reported: “In the 1980s, several U.S. utilities that bought the defective reactors sued GE. The long list of plaintiffs included Long Island Light, owner of the now-defunct Shoreham plant on Long Island Sound, and the Washington Public Power Supply System, owner of Columbia Generating Station.”