06-19-2018  5:33 am      •     
The Skanner Report
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NEWS BRIEFS

Unite Oregon Hosts ‘Mourn Pray Love, and Take Action’ June 20

Community is invited to gather at Terry Schrunk Plaza at 6 p.m. on World Refugee Day ...

MRG Foundation Announces Spring 2018 Grantees

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CareOregon Awards $250,000 for Housing Projects

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The Honorable Willie L. Brown to Receive NAACP Spingarn Medal

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Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture

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Prosecutor: Oregon man justified in shooting near hotel

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Some forest trails remain closed long after 2017 wildfire

IDANHA, Ore. (AP) — Some trails in Oregon's Willamette National Forest remain closed because of damage from a wildfire that scorched the area last year.The Whitewater Trail into the Jefferson Park area remains closed. Other trails, including some in the Fall Creek area near Eugene, also are...

Border separations ripple through midterm campaigns

Wrenching scenes of migrant children being separated from their parents at the southern border are roiling campaigns ahead of midterm elections, emboldening Democrats on the often-fraught issue of immigration while forcing an increasing number of Republicans to break from President Donald Trump on...

Spokane man convicted in 2015 deadly shooting

MOSES LAKE, Wash. (AP) — A Spokane man has been convicted of killing a Moses Lake teenager during a 2015 robbery attempt.The Columbia Basin Herald reports Jeremiah Smith was found guilty of first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, first-degree assault and first-degree unlawful possession...

OPINION

What Happened? Assessing the Singapore Summit

For all its weaknesses, we are better off having had the summit than not ...

Redlining Settlement Fails to Provide Strong Penalties

A recent settlement of a federal redlining lawsuit is yet another sign that justice is still being denied ...

5 Lessons on Peace I Learned from My Cat Soleil

Dr. Jasmine Streeter takes some cues on comfort from her cat ...

Research Suggests Suicides By Racial and Ethnic Minorities are Undercounted

Sociologist Dr. Kimya Dennis describes barriers to culturally-specific suicide research and treatment ...

AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE NEWS

Border separations ripple through midterm campaigns

Wrenching scenes of migrant children being separated from their parents at the southern border are roiling campaigns ahead of midterm elections, emboldening Democrats on the often-fraught issue of immigration while forcing an increasing number of Republicans to break from President Donald Trump on...

Germany: Syrian teen on trial over anti-Semitic assault

BERLIN (AP) — A 19-year-old from Syria is on trial in Berlin over an assault in the German capital on an Israeli wearing a skullcap.The young man is charged with bodily harm and slander. The April 17 attack caused nationwide outrage and fueled concerns over anti-Semitism in Germany.German...

City where many slaves entered US to apologize for slavery

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina city where almost half of all the slaves brought to the United States first set foot on American soil is ready to apologize for its role in the slave trade.The resolution expected to be passed by the Charleston City Council on Tuesday offers a...

ENTERTAINMENT

In 'Jurassic World,' a dino-sized animal-rights parable

NEW YORK (AP) — The dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" are many things. They are special-effects wonders. They are unruly house guests. And they are some of the biggest, most foot-stomping metaphors around.Since Steven Spielberg's 1993 original, the dinos of "Jurassic Park" — many of them...

Immigration detention policy becomes major issue in media

NEW YORK (AP) — In a phone conversation with her executive producer over the weekend, "CBS This Morning" anchor Gayle King wondered if there wasn't more the network could do on the story of children being separated from parents through the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration...

Adam Levine, Behati Prinsloo share baby photo

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine spent his first Father's Day as a dad of two.Supermodel Behati Prinsloo shared a photo on Instagram of the 39-year-old holding their second daughter, Gio Grace, who was born in February. Their first daughter, Dusty Rose, is nearly 2 years...

U.S. & WORLD NEWS

Yemeni officials say fighting rages around Hodeida airport

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Army splits with West Point grad who touted communist revolt

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China hopes for implementation of NKorea-US summit outcome

BEIJING (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday at the...

Twin brothers reunited 74 years after WWII death at Normandy

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France's Macron admonishes teenager; video goes viral

PARIS (AP) — A video of French President Emmanuel Macron strongly admonishing a teenager who called him by...

Jeff Donn AP National Writer

Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama

ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) -- When commercial nuclear power was getting its start in the 1960s and 1970s, industry and regulators stated unequivocally that reactors were designed only to operate for 40 years. Now they tell another story - insisting that the units were built with no inherent life span, and can run for up to a century, an Associated Press investigation shows.


By rewriting history, plant owners are making it easier to extend the lives of dozens of reactors in a relicensing process that resembles nothing more than an elaborate rubber stamp.


As part of a yearlong investigation of aging issues at the nation's nuclear power plants, the AP found that the relicensing process often lacks fully independent safety reviews. Records show that paperwork of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sometimes matches word-for-word the language used in a plant operator's application.


Also, the relicensing process relies heavily on such paperwork, with very little onsite inspection and verification.


And under relicensing rules, tighter standards are not required to compensate for decades of wear and tear.


So far, 66 of 104 reactors have been granted license renewals. Most of the 20-year extensions have been granted with scant public attention. And the NRC has yet to reject a single application to extend an original license. The process has been so routine that many in the industry are already planning for additional license extensions, which could push the plants to operate for 80 years, and then 100.


Regulators and industry now contend that the 40-year limit was chosen for economic reasons and to satisfy antitrust concerns, not for safety issues. They contend that a nuclear plant has no technical limit on its life.


But an AP review of historical records, along with interviews with engineers who helped develop nuclear power, shows just the opposite: Reactors were made to last only 40 years. Period.


The record also shows that a design limitation on operating life was an accepted truism.


In 1982, D. Clark Gibbs, chairman of the licensing and safety committee of an early industry group, wrote to the NRC that "most nuclear power plants, including those operating, under construction or planned for the future, are designed for a duty cycle which corresponds to a 40-year life."


And three years later, when Illinois Power Co. sought a license for its Clinton station, utility official D.W. Wilson told the NRC on behalf of his company's nuclear licensing department that "all safety margins were established with the understanding of the limitations that are imposed by a 40-year design life."


One person who should know the real story is engineering professor Richard T. Lahey Jr., at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Lahey once served in the nuclear Navy. Later, in the early 1970s, he helped design reactors for General Electric Co.; he oversaw safety research and development.


Lahey dismisses claims that reactors were made with no particular life span. "These reactors were really designed for a certain lifetime," he said. "What they're saying is really a fabrication."


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NUCLEAR LIFE RENEWED


Relicensing is a lucrative deal for operators. By the end of their original licenses, reactors are largely paid for. When they're operating, they're producing profits. They generate a fifth of the country's electricity.


New ones would each cost billions of dollars and take many years for approval, construction and testing. Local opposition may be strong. Already there is controversy about the safety of a next-generation design. Even before the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex in Japan, only a handful of proposed new reactors in the U.S. had taken the first steps toward construction.


Solar and wind power are projected to make very limited contributions as electrical demand rises about 30 percent by 2035. So keeping old plants operating makes good business sense.


But it's challenging to keep existing plants safe and up to date.


The NRC has indicated that safety improvements are likely in the aftermath of melted fuel in the Japanese reactors in March. NRC inspectors have found some problems with U.S. equipment and procedures. But the agency says all sites are ready to deal with earthquakes and flooding. The NRC also has formed a task force to investigate further and report back in July. Both the task force and the NRC chairman have already suggested that changes will be needed.


Meanwhile, license renewals, which began in 2000, continue. The process essentially requires a government-approved plan to manage wear. These plans entail more inspection, testing and maintenance by the operator, but only of certain equipment viewed as subject to deterioration over time.


The plans focus on large systems like reactor vessels. It is assumed that existing maintenance is good enough to keep critical smaller parts - cables, controls, pumps, motors - in good working order for decades more.


Some modernization has been put in place - upgrades on fire-prevention measures and electronic controls, for example. But many potential improvements are limited by the government's so-called "backfit rule." The provision exempts existing units from safety improvements unless such upgrades bring "a substantial increase" in public protection.


Even with required maintenance, aging problems keep popping up.


During its Aging Nukes investigation, the AP conducted scores of interviews and analyzed thousands of pages of industry and government records, reports and data. The documents show that for decades compromises have been made repeatedly in safety margins, regulations and emergency planning to keep the aging units operating within the rules. The AP has reported that nuclear plants have sustained repeated equipment failures, leading critics to fear that the U.S. industry is one failure away from a disaster.


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INDUSTRY, GOVERNMENT AS PARTNERS


Despite the aging problems, relicensing rules prohibits any overall safety review of the entire operation. More conservative safety margins are not required in anticipation of higher failure rates in old plants, regulators acknowledge.


The approach has turned relicensing reviews into routine approvals.


"Everything I've seen is rubber-stamped," said Joe Hopenfeld, an engineer who worked on aging-related issues at the NRC before retiring in 2008. He has since worked for groups challenging relicensing.


Numerous reports from the NRC's Office of Inspector General offer disturbing corroboration of his view.


For example, in 2002 the inspector general wrote: "Senior NRC officials confirmed that the agency is highly reliant on information from licensee risk assessments." Essentially that means the industry tells the NRC how likely an accident is and the NRC accepts the analysis.


Five years later, in a relicensing audit, the inspector general complained of frequent instances of "identical or nearly identical word-for-word repetition" of the plant applications in NRC reviews. The inspector general worried that the repetition indicated superficial reviews that went through the motions, instead of thorough and independent examinations.


The problems went beyond paperwork. The inspector general found that the NRC reviews usually relied on the plants to report on their operating experience, but the agency didn't independently verify the information.


NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said staffers have now agreed to use their own words in their reviews of relicensing applications.


Christopher Grimes, former director of license renewal at the NRC, acknowledges that the agency "has to rely much more on the contents of the applications ... over direct inspection."


He blames budget constraints, but others view relicensing as a charade. Clean Ocean Action unsuccessfully challenged relicensing at the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, but chief scientist Jennifer Sampson said, "We really knew it was a waste of time."


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FROM 40 YEARS TO 60 AND BEYOND


There are two thrusts to the revisionist argument that nuclear reactors can last for decades and decades: First, that they weren't really designed only for 40 years; second, that there is no technical limitation on any length of time. Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer at the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute, says 40 years for the initial license was simply how long it was expected to take to pay off construction loans.


In 2008, an NRC report was emphatic about the economic rationale of 40-year license, insisting that "this time limit was developed from utility antitrust concerns and not physically based design limitations from engineering analysis, components, or materials."


Even so, it felt compelled to acknowledge, in passing, that "some individual plant and equipment designs" were engineered for 40 years of life.


What's the truth? Fifty years ago, rural electricity cooperatives, worried about competition, did object to granting indefinitely long licenses to the new nuclear industry. But that's only part of the story.


The 40-year license was created by Congress as a somewhat arbitrary political compromise - "some long period of time, because nobody in his right mind would want to operate a nuclear plant beyond that time,'" said Ivan Selin, an engineer who chaired the NRC in the early 1990s.


Instead of stopping at 40 years, or even 60, the industry began advancing the idea of even longer nuclear life in discussions with its NRC partners starting several years ago.


In 2009, an issue paper by the industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute said that "many experts believe ... that these plants can operate safely well beyond their initial or extended operating periods - possibly to 80 or 100 years."


In November, an EPRI survey of industry executives found that more than 60 percent of executives strongly believed reactors can last at least 80 years.


EPRI engineer Neil Wilmshurst, vice president of its nuclear sector, said in an interview that many in the industry foresee the feasibility of reactors lasting even longer.


Adding its own push, Congress has set aside $12 million over the past two fiscal years for the Department of Energy to study if nuclear plants can last decades longer.


So for industry, the question is not if plants can run decades longer - that is now presumed true - but for how long?


"The research must start now, as it will take years to gather the data necessary to justify life extension out to 80 or 100 years," EPRI says in a background document.


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HOW LONG CAN THEY GO?


Reactors and their surrounding equipment obviously were not made to fall apart the day after their 40th birthday. But how long can they safely last?


Other power generators have recognized the limits of design life. Though plants burning coal and other traditional fuels incorporate many similar systems to nuclear units - minus the atomic reactor - 90 percent close within 50 years, according to Department of Energy data analyzed by the AP.


Dana Powers, a member of the NRC's independent Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, said he believes nuclear plants can last for just one license extension, or up to 60 years total. "I doubt they go two," he added.


Peter Lyons, a physicist and recent NRC commissioner, said several features of plants are extraordinarily hard to replace and could limit their lifetimes. They include reactor vessels, electric cables set in concrete, and underground piping.


In an AP interview at NRC headquarters here, agency chairman Gregory Jaczko said decisions on license extensions are based on safety, not economics.


Former NRC chief Selin says extension decisions should be made "on a case-by-case basis."


And industry executives and regulators acknowledge that more research is needed.


In the past, though, both parties found ways to shift assumptions, theories and standards enough to keep reactors chugging.


There's every reason to think they'll try to do it again.


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The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org



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