The owners of two 40-year-old nuclear reactors at Point Beach, on Lake Michigan north of Two Rivers, want to increase the power output for each unit by 17 percent -- from 1,540 megawatts to 1,800.
The gunning of rickety old nukes is getting a green light all over the region.
The Monticello reactor, 30 miles from Minneapolis, will boost its output to 120 percent of the original licensed limit -- from 613 megawatts to 684. Monticello’s been rattling along since 1971, and it rattles badly. In 2007, a 35,000-pound turbine control box (6 feet by 6 feet and 20 feet long) broke its welds and fell onto a large steam pipe that was cut open, causing the loss of so much pressure that an automatic reactor shutdown was tripped. Decades of intense vibration and poor welding were blamed for the crash. The reactor had been operating at 90 percent power. So why not push the limits to 120 percent?
In 2009 the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected claims that the accident record at the two Prairie Island reactors, south of Minneapolis, is so bad that its license extension should be denied. In May 2006, one of them accidentally spewed radioactive iodine-131 gas over 110 of its own workers, who inhaled it. Internal radiation poisoning is the kind for which there is no decontamination. Even so, the NRC could soon OK letting the Prairie Island jalopies run until 2033 and 2034, respectively, rather than shut them down in 2013 and 2014 as the license now requires.
Back in Wisconsin, Point Beach’s “extended power uprate” (EPU) plan was published in the Federal Register by the NRC Dec. 10. The draft environmental assessment and “finding of no significant impact” are hair-raising. The public has until Jan. 8 to comment.
Should we be skeptical? Point Beach has received two of only four “Red findings” -- the worst failure warning available -- ever issued by the NRC. In 2006, the NRC found that operators had harassed a whistle-blower who documented technical violations. In 2005, Point Beach was fined $60,000 for deliberately giving false information to federal inspectors. In May 1996, it was the site of a potentially catastrophic explosion of hydrogen gas that upended the 3-ton lid on a huge cask filled with high-level radioactive waste. The lid was being robotically welded when the gas exploded.
Regarding cancer-causing pollution, the environmental assessment says revving up the Wisconsin reactors would cause a 17.6 percent increase in the “radioactivity in the reactor coolant, which in turn increases the radioactivity in the waste disposal systems and radioactive gases released from the plant.” Further, the “licensee (NextEra Energy LLC) stated that the in-plant radiation sources are expected to increase approximately linearly with the proposed increase in core power level,” or 17.6 percent.
In spite of these increases in radiation in discharged water and air inside reactor buildings, the environmental assessment asserts that “no physical changes would be needed to the radioactive gaseous, liquid, or solid waste systems.” Does your 1971 Caprice still run pretty well with the original air, oil and fuel systems, let alone the motor?
The assessment claims Point Beach’s 40-year-old “shielding design … is adequate to offset the increased radiation levels that are expected to occur from the proposed EPU.” This is because the change “is not expected to significantly affect radiation levels within the plant and therefore there would not be a significant radiological impact to the workers.”
Since there is no safe level of radiation exposure -- no matter how “insignificant” -- the NRC should hear from Wisconsin and Minnesota that we don’t believe utility lullabies, and that the last thing we should do with retirement-aged reactors is stomp on the accelerator.
John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a Wisconsin-based organization, and edits its quarterly newsletter.