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From nuts to bolts: Why the NRC must ground BOTH Indian Point reactors


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What Entergy found inside the Unit 2 Reactor last weekend was alarming. During an inspection required every 10 years, it found at least 227 of the 832 “core baffle” bolts that keep the inner walls of the reactor core from coming apart were either missing or impaired, degraded by the high levels of radiation inside the reactor.

That’s more than a quarter of the bolts. Entergy and the NRC had anticipated only a 1.5 percent failure rate from this inspection, but the actual observed failure rate was 20 times higher! Now, the Unit 2 Reactor is offline for refueling, but will remain inoperable for weeks longer until a robotic unit can further assess the damage and make acute repairs.

Entergy representatives have since tried to spin the situation, flooding the media with reassurances and calling this revelation nothing out of the ordinary.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

While Entergy attempts to pacify the public with reassurances, it’s telling an entirely different story to the NRC. In an earlier report to regulators, Entergy formally admits that degraded and missing bolts creates an “unanalyzed condition that significantly degrades plant safety.”

Unlike Entergy, we won’t be duplicitous. This damage is unprecedented. No other nuclear plant in the U.S. has reached this disturbing level of disrepair, which is probably why Entergy won’t provide examples of similar events. The damage right at the core of Indian Point Reactor 2 makes it even harder for those nearby to ignore the unfathomable threat this plant poses to us every day.

Core-Former-Bolt-Event-Indian-Point-Unit-2-March-29-2016-3-croppedWhat havoc can bolts damaged by irradiation create? Loose pieces may cause damage to critical components such as fuel rods, valves, and control rods inside the reactor. Degraded bolts can lead to damage to the core structure and eventually the fuel. Here’s one scenario: If degraded bolts allow the core baffle and former plates to separate, makeup water supplied to the reactor vessel by the emergency core cooling systems could flow through these openings instead of flowing through the reactor core. If enough makeup flow bypasses the reactor core, the nuclear fuel will overheat and become damaged. The result, lots of radioactive material is released from the damaged fuel rods and out of the reactor vessel through the ruptured pipe.

In 1966, the Fermi Unit I reactor in Newport, Michigan suffered a partial meltdown in two fuel assemblies in its reactor. A probe by the Joint Committee of Atomic Energy found that two zirconium plates had broken free and blocked cooling flow through the fuel assemblies. Radiation alarms in the building’s ventilation exhaust ducts sounded and was followed by an emergency shutdown of the reactor. The 4.5 million people who lived in the Detroit metropolitan area were blissfully unaware of the peril they were in.

We just dodged a bullet with Indian Point 2. Had this reactor not been offline for refueling, the bolts in the reactor core would continue their decay and would have posed more of a danger to the 20 million people who live and work in the 50-mile Indian Point “evacuation zone.” But don’t take my word for it, take it from a nuclear engineer, David Lochbaum, the Director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists:

“These highly irradiated bolts perform a critical safety and operational function at the plant. Loss of a single bolt or isolated multiple failures of the baffle-former bolts are considered to be manageable, but catastrophic or clustered loss of multiple bolts at adjacent locations could cause a lack of structural stability and potentially raise safety and operational concerns.”

Let’s put this sobering news in perspective: Most federal regulatory agencies put the safety and welfare of the public before the benefit of the industry they monitor.

If a commercial airliner had significant and unforeseen structural damage, not only would the Federal Aviation Administration ground that very plane, it would demand inspections of aircraft of the same model — as it has many times in the past — to find out whether the the defect is systemic or just a fluke.

Indian Point 2 and 3 are virtually identical. They’re a few years apart in age and have similar operational histories. By the standard set by other federal regulatory agencies, the NRC should do more than just audit the structural problems present at Indian Point 2’s reactor. They must examine the possibility that Indian Point 2’s troubles might be the result of an integral design flaw that also plagues its twin. The consequences of such a flaw just cannot be overstated.

The NRC owes it to New Yorkers to put public safety before corporate benefit: Ground Indian Point 3 – at least until we get to the bottom of this.

Entergy Notification of Baffle-Former Assembly Bolt Inspection Findings 3-29-16

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