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Continuing Concrete Problems at Seabrook

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The concrete in buildings at the Seabrook nuclear plant is being attacked by a chemical reaction that causes the concrete to swell and crack. If the condition is severe enough, it can weaken the concrete enough to cause structural problems. This condition, called alkali silica reaction (ASR), has been discovered at 131 locations in multiple structures at Seabrook.

It is important for the NRC to understand this issue thoroughly, since Seabrook’s owner NextEra has filed for a license renewal that would allow the reactor to operate until 2050, and chemical studies show the ASR will continue into the future. Since Seabrook is the first U.S. nuclear plant where ASR has been found, the NRC is in uncharted territory—it doesn’t have regulations that apply to this situation and the NRC staff does not have the detailed technical expertise that it has in other areas.

NRC Chair Macfarlane examining concrete at Seabrook (Photo: NRC)

NRC Chair Macfarlane examining concrete at Seabrook (Photo: NRC)

Because of our interest in nuclear power safety, last year we hired an independent concrete expert—Prof. Paul Brown of Penn State University—to help us identify the key issues, review NRC and NextEra documents, and comment on them. Last year, we released a set of comments by Prof. Brown and a summary of the issues and outstanding questions (the latter, jointly with the organization C-10).

In November, we sent a letter to the NRC commissioners providing new commentary by Prof. Brown on an NRC inspection report from August 2013. We also released with C-10 a background paper that describes some of the questions that we continue to have about the tests and inspections being conducted on the Seabrook concrete. The NRC inspectors responded to those documents with a letter in early December.

Last evening there was a public meeting near Seabrook about the concrete issues, which we were invited to address. My statement to the meeting is here.

Testing Concrete at Seabrook

One of the key issues highlighted at that meeting is the fact that the Seabrook plant has a set of buildings that were intended for a second reactor that was never built. Since these were built at the same time, by the same workers, and with the same concrete as the structures of the operating reactor, they could be used for extensive testing and monitoring to better understand the extent and implications of the concrete degradation at the site.

NextEra has instead hired a group at the University of Texas to conduct “replica tests,” which means trying to replicate the chemistry of the concrete used at Seabrook, subject it to ASR, and measure its properties.

While that might be an interesting way to understand more about the effects of ASR generically, it’s not clear what the tests will tell you about the specific situation at Seabrook, which is what matters. It’s a little like trying to figure out how good the food at a particular restaurant will be by trying to make the recipes yourself—it will give you some general information but won’t tell you anything specific to the restaurant. There may have been details about the way the concrete at Seabrook was made, mixed, and poured that are important.

If the goal of the tests and inspections is to assess as accurately as possible the actual situation with the concrete in structures at Seabrook—and that should be the goal—it makes sense to do extensive testing of actual concrete in structures at Seabrook. It is serendipitous that such structures exist for testing—the NRC should require NextEra to use them.

 

Posted in: Nuclear Power Safety Tags: ,

About the author: Dr. Wright received his PhD in physics from Cornell University in 1983, and worked for five years as a research physicist. He was an SSRC-MacArthur Foundation Fellow in International Peace and Security in the Center for Science and International Affairs in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and a Senior Analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. He is a Fellow of the American Physics Society (APS) and a recipient of APS Joseph A. Burton Forum Award in 2001. He has been at UCS since 1992. Areas of expertise: Space weapons and security, ballistic missile proliferation, ballistic missile defense, U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons policy

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  • Richard Solomon

    Is the NRC leaning towards allowing the industry to do what the industry feels is best rather than what science suggests should be done? AGAIN??????

  • Joyce Agresta

    My late father an engineer worked on construction of this and many other nuclear power plants. Many strange happenings surrounded them all.
    An oddity about this particular plant was concrete did not set as quickly as it should have. Structural abnormalities of the concrete where noticed and documented during construction of the plant.
    They knew something wasn’t correct as it was being built. How creepy it must be walking in the plant today seeing the cracks in the walls. So they still don’t know now what they didn’t know then. Perhaps if the NRC had a similar interest in Nuclear Safety as do you they would have consulted an expert long ago. Why would they ask a question reasonably expecting an answer they know but don’t want to document?
    As shown in the picture of chairmen Macfarlane one might rather be looking in than out.
    I do recall over hearing conversations about other nuclear power plants and some rather disturbing ponderings of how human bodies set in the foundations might effect the structural integrity of concrete. Those construction folks didn’t consult a concrete expert either. Or maybe the idea was just buried as good ideas often are.
    It’s really far fetched to imagine these things where built to spec. Corruption and coercion ruled the industry then as they do today. Eventually we all understand the need to clean our own backyards even at the expense of throwing the other guy under the buss. Perhaps time will disprove that age old saying dead men don’t tell tales. Something a concrete expert might be able to answer.