Regulators Asked to Close Washington Nuclear
by Ted Sickinger
Anti-nuclear groups want federal regulators to keep the region's lone nuclear plant shut down until repairs are made to a cracked pipe that feeds cooling water to the reactor.
The Columbia Generating Station in Richland, Washington, shut down a week ago for scheduled maintenance. Operators said the plant just completed a record 683-day uninterrupted run.
Energy Northwest, the utility consortium that operates the 1,100 megawatt plant, contends said the cracked pipe is a minor repair that doesn't need to be done immediately. The consortium said activists are seizing on the issue to forward their agenda of seeing the plant shut for good.
The pump is the latest in a growing list of issues that activists have raised about the plant, which they claim is uneconomical, outdated and isn't designed to withstand the size earthquakes that are possible at the site.
The plant's operators three weeks ago notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that because of the location of the crack, they are assuming it will grow more slowly than the growth rate specified in industry safety standards - a deviation that requires them to notify the commission.
Plant operators said the 1.25 inch crack in a 19 foot pipe was first discovered in 2011 and has existed since at least 2001, though it doesn't appear to have grown. Energy Northwest spokesman Mike Paoli said if the crack did grow, it could force reduced power generation but not pose a safety risk
In its notice to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Energy Northwest noted that it earlier installed equipment to reduce vibrations in the cooling pumps and was managing water chemistry to minimize risk that the metal would become brittle.
"We're looked at it. It's not doing anything. There's no compelling reason to go in there and mess with it," Paoli said.
The anti nuclear groups only learned of the crack in the recent filing. But they now claim that Energy Northwest is minimizing a potentially significant issue that compromises safety margins at the plant, and relying on its regulator to look the other way.
The Physicians for Social Responsibility on Wednesday petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend the plant restart until the pipe has been repaired. The group contends the fix is crucial in light of recent seismic studies showing that a major earthquake could cause more ground movement at the plant than designed to withstand.
Energy Northwest was required to deliver its own seismic review of the site to Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March. But the commission on Tuesday gave Energy Northwest another two years analyze how the expected ground movements would impact structures at the plant.
The petition said that the crack or any other pipe damage during an earthquake could cause water to drain more rapidly from the reactor, affecting the ability to keep the radioactive core cool.
"The reactor should either be kept closed during this current shut down for refueling and...repaired, or, if the NRC has not acted until after the nuclear plant has been re-started, the reactor be closed for that purpose," the petition said.
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