Category Archives: Utilities

Nuclear Regulatory Commission responds to rare East Coast earthquake

When an earthquake hit Virginia Tuesday afternoon, nuclear power plants up and down the East Coast — including Exelon Nuclear’s Limerick Generating Station — began assessing if damage had occurred.

Part of the problem, however, may be that the place an earthquake is most likely to cause damage is also the place the hardest to inspect — underground.

Making that scenario more worrisome is a June investigative report by the Associated Press which found that as the nation’s nuclear fleet ages, much of its underground infrastructure, exposed to corrosion – and is constantly exposed to moist conditions, may be deteriorating even faster.

Assessing earthquake damage is not a simple operation given that “each plant has unique design specifications for seismic resistance,” according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan.

Called its “design basis,” each plant is “built to withstand the largest historical earthquake in the area, with additional margin on top of that,” Sheehan wrote in an email answering questions from Journal Register News Service.

Sheehan noted that in the wake of the Mineral, Va. tremblor, “walk down” or visual inspections “of key infrastructure at each facility” at all nuclear plants were conducted both by plant personnel and independently by the resident NRC inspectors at each plant.

“No structural damage has been identified at any of the affected plants,” he wrote.

But while visual inspections may have found no damage, any underground damage not evident to the naked eye could only be identified by a change in readings for pipes, gauges or underground valves, according to Sheehan.

“Any significant impacts on buried piping would be readily noticeable via changes in flows. Also, plant owners are required to perform flow tests on safety- and non-safety-related piping at regular intervals,” Sheehan wrote in his email.

“Whether those checks would need to be accelerated in light of yesterday’s earthquake will have to be determined,” he added.

Perhaps that determination will be influenced by the AP report which found underground leaks “sometimes go undiscovered for years, the AP found.”

The AP found that leaks of water laced with traces of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, have been found at 48 of 65 nuclear sites “repeatedly at many of them.”

Although some of those leaks occurred at plants owned by Exelon, no such leak has ever been reported at the Limerick Generating Station.

However, “slightly elevated levels of tritium” were found in six water samples taken from on-site wells at Limerick as well as in one surface water sample according to a study released in 2006. However, the company statement issued at the time said those higher levels are the result of “historic releases.”

In other words: surface spills, not underground leaks.

The “historic releases” were described by a company spokesperson as four “unplanned liquid releases” of tritium that took place “over the past 20 years.”

The tritium was the result of spills, not underground leaks, that had all occurred “in isolated areas on the plant property where you don’t normally find tritium” and had all been reported to the NRC and to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

All the spills were “within our permitted discharge levels” and there were no fines or violations associated with them and the spokesperson said the tests showed none of Limerick’s underground systems were leaking in 2006.

But there were leaks at three Illinois nuclear plants owned by Exelon, one of them from an underground source that went on for four years.

The AP reported that “nuclear operators have failed to stop an epidemic of leaks in pipes and other underground equipment in damp settings. The country’s nuclear sites have suffered more than 400 accidental radioactive leaks during their history, the activist Union of Concerned Scientists reported in September.

“Plant operators have been drilling monitoring wells and patching hidden or buried piping and other equipment for several years to control an escalating outbreak.

“Here, too, they have failed. Between 2000 and 2009, the annual number of leaks from underground piping shot up fivefold, according to an internal industry document obtained and analyzed by the AP.”

The AP investigation also reported “many of the pipes or tanks have been patched, and contaminated soil and water have been removed in some places. But leaks are often discovered later from other nearby piping, tanks or vaults. Mistakes and defective material have contributed to some leaks. However, corrosion — from decades of use and deterioration — is the main cause. And, safety engineers say, the rash of leaks suggest nuclear operators are hard put to maintain the decades-old systems.”

All of which occurred, presumably, without the added stress of an earthquake on aging materials exposed to corrosion.

In addition to publishing an assessment of NRC investigation and enforcement following incidents at plants in 2010, The Union of Concerned Scientists recently issued a set of recommendations for ways NRC could improve safety at the nations 104 nuclear reactors.

Among those recommendations:

• “The NRC should require plant owners to use multiple inspection techniques to ensure detection of any degradation in aging, high-risk equipment.

• “The NRC should require plant owners to periodically inspect equipment outside the scope of normal inspections, both to determine whether that scope is appropriate and to detect problems before safety margins are compromised.”


PG&E says it is not to blame for San Bruno blast

Officials with PG&E have reached their conclusion about what caused a natural-gas pipeline to explode in San Bruno last September. And they have concluded the event was not the utility’s fault.

Federal investigators asked PG&E, the agency that regulates it, the city of San Bruno and other parties to submit analyses about what caused and contributed to the San Bruno disaster, which took eight lives and decimated a neighborhood.

A document prepared by PG&E, filed with investigators in June and released this week completed a narrative that company officials have been advancing for months: that the pipeline explosion was caused by a 1954 manufacturing defect rather than any actions taken by the utility. PG&E officials concluded the utility-caused spike in natural-gas pressure that preceded the explosion “would not have damaged” the pipe, and that their emergency response was “timely and reasonable.”

In comparison, the city of San Bruno and safety officials with the California Public Utilities Commission cited factors such as PG&E’s poor record-keeping practices, its use of nonrigorous testing methods, decisions by its management, and the utility’s inadequate pipeline safety practices as possibly contributing to the disaster.

When asked why PG&E omitted such factors from its own narrative, utility spokesman Brian Swanson said the company has taken actions to improve its natural-gas system since the accident and acknowledged that its record-keeping practices “were not where they should be.”

Swanson also pointed to the introduction of PG&E’s 13-page assessment, in which the utility struck a humble tone.

“PG&E does not want the narrowness of this focus to suggest that it has not learned a broader lesson from this tragic accident,” the introduction stated.

Ultimately, however, the document identified the probable cause of the disaster as a poor weld along the pipeline that exploded, which it indicated was “completed at a mill by a manufacturer” and not PG&E.

The utility also concluded that pre-rupture actions of PG&E personnel “were timely and reasonable” and did not contribute to nor exacerbate the damage caused by the explosion.

Likewise, the document concluded that the company’s actions after the rupture on Sept. 9 were similarly “timely and reasonable.”

PG&E’s emergency response has been widely and acutely criticized, because the company was unable to shut off the gas flow for about 90 minutes after the rupture, leading to an expansion of the fire that consumed the Crestmoor neighborhood.

Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, said she was hardly surprised that PG&E would reject responsibility for the accident even after it issuing a public apology.

“This is why we have regulatory agencies, because it’s predictable that PG&E would say ‘not our fault,’” Spatt said.

“Consumers are much more interested in hearing what independent bodies conclude than they are in hearing what PG&E concludes.”

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Coal scrubbers are corroding

Ohio pollution controls are showing wear after as little as a year.

Coal-fired power plants across the country are being checked for corrosion problems on billions of dollars’ worth of equipment that is supposed to cut air pollution. And the results from three power companies in Ohio show that the  scrubbers are corroding at a much faster rate than was expected.

Coal scrubbers – some 15 stories tall — spray a slurry of water and limestone into coal flumes to capture most of the pollutants before they’re released into the air. The scrubbers cost up to $500 million, and are supposed to last 25 years.

But Akron-based FirstEnergy discovered corrosion in three new scrubbers at its plant along the Ohio River. None of is older than a year.  American Electric Power also found corrosion at four plants in Ohio and West Virginia. And Duke Energy found it at its Southwest Ohio plant.

A national inquiry is now underway by The Electric Power Research Institute.

John Shingledecker is the senior project manager for the institute. He says he’s seen corrosion in as little as 11 months, and in wide variety of scrubbers.

“There was some initial thought that there was only one particular alloy that was being affected,” he said.

“But there are now different types of alloys, some that have been used in the past as well. And we’ve seen it in multiple designs and multiple manufacturers.”

Shingledecker says figuring out the cause of the corrosion could  take two years, and  in the meantime coal-fired power plants can use protective coatings or clay tiles to try to stop the corrosion.

But American Electric Power spokesman Pat Hemlepp says his company’s scrubbers are operating safely.

”We are working with the industry to address what happening. As far as an environmental standpoint, the equipment does what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “The equipment is taken down for maintenance routinely just like the plants are. And we’re doing whatever is necessary during those maintenance periods to take care of the corrosion issue. It’s not a safety issue, it’s not a health issue.”

Hemlepp says the cost of maintaining the scrubbers has already been calculated into customer bills.

The Columbus Dispatch reported this week that AEP negotiated a confidential settlement with, a contractor on the scrubbers to address corrosion at its central Ohio plants.


‘Aggressive’ corrosion eats at power-plant scrubbers

When American Electric Power installed a pollution scrubber at its Cardinal plant along the Ohio River in 2007, it was supposed to last 25 years.

About a year later, an inspection found that something was eating through its steel walls.

“There were some areas in the tank vessel itself that ultimately corroded all the way through,” said Bill Sigmon, AEP’s senior vice president for engineering, projects and field services.

It wasn’t a freak occurrence.

The Electric Power Research Institute, which is funded by utility companies, is investigating reports of “aggressive” corrosion in scrubbers across the nation.

“Our findings, so far, show it’s fairly widespread through the industry,” said John Shingledecker, senior project manager in the research institute’s fossil materials and repair program.

Without a fix, corrosion threatens plant shutdowns and costly repairs, both of which could affect Ohioans’ power bills.

Scrubbers are key weapons in the fight to reduce pollution at coal-fired power plants.

They were installed to help meet a federal mandate that coal-fired power plants cut 71 percent of their sulfur-dioxide emissions by 2014.

They also were required by settlements FirstEnergy signed in 2005 and AEP agreed to in 2007 to end separate federal air-pollution lawsuits.

Central Ohio AEP customers already are paying for the scrubbers. State regulators permitted the company to increase base fees as much as 7 percent in 2009, 6 percent in 2010 and another 6 percent this year.

Estimates kept by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio show the average Columbus residential electricity bill for the month of June rose from $87.90 in 2008 to $95.21 this year.

There are about 360 operating scrubbers at U.S. power plants. They are used mainly to catch sulfur dioxide, a key ingredient in the smog and soot pollution that plagues U.S. cities, including Columbus.

Research Institute officials are focused on 166 scrubbers installed since 2006.

As many as 70 are made of a type of stainless steel that appears particularly vulnerable to corrosion.

In addition to Cardinal, AEP found corrosion in new scrubbers at its Conesville plant in Coshocton County and at its Mountaineer and Mitchell plants along the Ohio River in West Virginia.

The company spent $1.7 billion to install five scrubbers at those four plants, said Melissa McHenry, a company spokeswoman.

Duke Energy found corrosion in two Miami Fort plant scrubbers in Hamilton County, which cost $365 million. Akron-based FirstEnergy found initial signs of corrosion in three new scrubbers at its W.H. Sammis plant along the Ohio River in Jefferson County.

“They became operational in January,” FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said.

It cost $1.8 billion to install scrubbers and other pollution filters there.

A scrubber can hold as much as 1 million gallons of lime slurry, a solution that captures sulfur compounds in hot power-plant smoke before it goes up the stack.

Although no scrubber has “failed,” utility officials say they want to know why some are corroding. Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the company, so far, has spent more than $5 million on short-term repairs.

“We do not want to be applying Band-Aids,” Culbert said.

Sigmon said AEP negotiated a confidential settlement with a contractor, to address corrosion at its Conesville and Cardinal plants.

Shingledecker said it could take as long as two years to identify a root cause of the corrosion and find a solution.


Regulators Concerned About Canadian Oil Corroding U.S. Pipelines

U.S. regulators express concern that diluted bitumen from Canadian oil sands may be corrosive to pipelines and risk should be assessed.

The United States is benefiting greatly from the Canadian oil sands, providing abundant fuel from a friendly neighbor to the north, thus reducing dependence on foreign oil from nations with a less-friendly attitude toward the U.S.  One would assume that U.S. regulators would be happy to get their oil from Canada, but not so fast.  Apparently U.S. lawmakers are expressing concern that the diluted bitumen derived from Canadian oil sands may be corroding U.S. oil pipelines.

U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman, the leading Democrat on the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee, is worried that regulatory oversight isn’t keeping up with an increasing amount of diluted bitumen being transported via U.S. pipelines. “I’m concerned that the industry is changing, but the safety regulations are not keeping up with the changes,” he said at an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. “That could be a recipe for disaster down the road.”

Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council said at the hearing, “It is in the public’s best interest for our pipeline safety for regulators to evaluate the risks that high volumes of heavy, corrosive and abrasive crudes, such as diluted bitumen, will have on the U.S. pipeline.”

A number of pipeline accidents in the U.S. Midwest have some questioning whether diluted bitumen may be to blame. TransCanada’s existing Keystone pipeline leaked 10 barrels of oil, due to a faulty fitting at a Kansas pump station last month. That accident followed a 500-barrel spill at a pump station in North Dakota in early May.

The committee last month passed a bill requiring the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to study the impact of diluted bitumen on U.S. pipelines.

Even Republicans think the issue should be investigated. “I think it is something we need to look into,” said Republican Representative Joe Barton.

However, President of the Association of Oil Pipelines Andrew Black disputes any claims that diluted bitumen is contributing to pipeline corrosion, saying, “Diluted bitumen has been moved through pipelines for many years.”

At any rate, what harm could come from assessing the risks?  If there’s no problem, then we continue to take advantage of Canadian oil.  If there is a corrosion problem, we invest in pipeline infrastructure to reduce corrosion.  It would be nonsensical to risk losing the pipelines, which cost billions to construct, simply because we didn’t take action early on.


75 percent of US nuclear sites have corrosion issues — leaking tritium

BRACEVILLE, Ill. (AP) – Radioactive tritium has leaked from three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites, often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping, an Associated Press investigation shows.

The number and severity of the leaks has been escalating, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation.

Tritium, which is a radioactive form of hydrogen, has leaked from at least 48 of 65 sites, according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records reviewed as part of the AP’s yearlong examination of safety issues at aging nuclear power plants. Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard – sometimes at hundreds of times the limit.

While most leaks have been found within plant boundaries, some have migrated offsite. But none is known to have reached public water supplies.

At three sites – two in Illinois and one in Minnesota – leaks have contaminated drinking wells of nearby homes, the records show, but not at levels violating the drinking water standard. At a fourth site, in New Jersey, tritium has leaked into an aquifer and a discharge canal feeding picturesque Barnegat Bay off the Atlantic Ocean.

Any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how slight, boosts cancer risk, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Federal regulators set a limit for how much tritium is allowed in drinking water, where this contaminant poses its main health risk. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says tritium should measure no more than 20,000 picocuries per liter in drinking water. The agency estimates seven of 200,000 people who drink such water for decades would develop cancer.

The tritium leaks also have spurred doubts among independent engineers about the reliability of emergency safety systems at the 104 nuclear reactors situated on the 65 sites. That’s partly because some of the leaky underground pipes carry water meant to cool a reactor in an emergency shutdown and to prevent a meltdown. Fast moving, tritium can indicate the presence of more powerful radioactive isotopes, like cesium-137 and strontium-90.

So far, federal and industry officials say, the tritium leaks pose no health or safety threat. Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute, said impacts are “next to zero.”


One of the highest known tritium readings was discovered in 2002 at the Salem nuclear plant in Lower Alloways Creek Township, N.J. Tritium leaks from the spent fuel pool contaminated groundwater under the facility – located on an island in Delaware Bay – at a concentration of 15 million picocuries per liter. That’s 750 times the EPA drinking water limit. According to NRC records, the tritium readings last year still exceeded EPA drinking water standards.

And tritium found separately in an onsite storm drain system measured 1 million picocuries per liter in April 2010.

Also last year, the operator, PSEG Nuclear, discovered 680 feet of corroded, buried pipe that is supposed to carry cooling water to Salem Unit 1 in an accident, according to an NRC report. Some had worn down to a quarter of its minimum required thickness, though no leaks were found. The piping was dug up and replaced.

The operator had not visually inspected the piping – the surest way to find corrosion- since the reactor went on line in 1977, according to the NRC. PSEG Nuclear was found to be in violation of NRC rules because it hadn’t even tested the piping since 1988.

Last year, the Vermont Senate was so troubled by tritium leaks as high as 2.5 million picocuries per liter at the Vermont Yankee reactor in southern Vermont (125 times the EPA drinking-water standard) that it voted to block relicensing – a power that the Legislature holds in that state.

In March, the NRC granted the plant a 20-year license extension, despite the state opposition. Weeks ago, operator Entergy sued Vermont in federal court, challenging its authority to force the plant to close.

At 41-year-old Oyster Creek in southern New Jersey, the country’s oldest operating reactor, the latest tritium troubles started in April 2009, a week after it was relicensed for 20 more years. That’s when plant workers discovered tritium by chance in about 3,000 gallons of water that had leaked into a concrete vault housing electrical lines.

Since then, workers have found leaking tritium three more times at concentrations up to 10.8 million picocuries per liter – 540 times the EPA’s drinking water limit – according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. None has been directly measured in drinking water, but it has been found in an aquifer and in a canal discharging into nearby Barnegat Bay, a popular spot for swimming, boating and fishing.


Mike Feuer Calls Upon Public Utilities Commission to Provide Gas Pipeline Safety Information

Feuer Requests Answers to Concerns Raised by Investigation of San Bruno Pipeline Rupture.

Assembly Member Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) has asked the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to provide information about the safety of gas pipelines in Feuer’s district after a devastating explosion in San Bruno, California raised questions about the safety of aging pipeline infrastructure.  In a letter dated June 10, 2011, Feuer called for the CPUC’s assistance in obtaining answers to a number of specific concerns identified by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in its investigation of the pipeline rupture in San Bruno.

“The safety of my constituents is my number one priority, which is why I called on the CPUC to provide answers to a comprehensive set of questions about the safety of the pipelines running through neighborhoods in my district,” said Feuer. “I want to ensure that residents and businesses have the information they need to protect their families and workplaces.”

After the San Bruno disaster, Feuer’s office met with representatives from Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), whose pipelines serve most of Southern California, to discuss issues of pipeline safety.  This session, Feuer supported Assembly Bill 56, legislation designating the CPUC as the state authority responsible for the development and administration of a safety program for natural gas pipelines. Feuer’s current request to the CPUC seeks information that would increase transparency and communication between SoCalGas and the communities it serves.

“I am asking for the CPUC’s help to gather information about SoCalGas pipelines to increase public awareness and promote industry practices that will contribute to safer communities,” Feuer stated.

In his letter to the CPUC, Feuer asked a number of specific questions, among them:

  • Has SoCalGas identified all gas transmission lines in the District that have not previously undergone a testing regimen designed to validate a safe operating pressure?
  • What steps has SoCalGas taken to ensure it is basing operating pressures on accurate information contained in its records?
  • Where are the high consequence areas (HCAs) located within the 42nd District?  Have residences, businesses, schools and other institutions been made aware of their proximity to the HCAs?
  • Does each high-pressure pipeline identified by SoCalGas pursuant to the NTSB recommendations have an automatic or computerized shut-off valve?  If not, why not, and when could a plan be developed to install and pay for such valves?

A complete copy of Feuer’s letter to the CPUC can be found here.

The 42nd Assembly District includes all or part of the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Sherman Oaks, Studio City, North Hollywood, Valley Glen, Valley Village, Toluca Lake, Universal City, Griffith Park, West Los Angeles, Brentwood, Bel Air, Holmby Hills, Beverly Glen, Westwood, Century City, Hollywood, Fairfax, Hancock Park, Los Feliz and the Cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.


Illinois American Water continues its pipeline replacement program – Aging Infrastructure

The barricades are coming down on Illinois 159 at the Swansea-Belleville  border as Illinois American Water completes the first phase of its $1.6 million water  main replacement and corrosion project.

About  700 feet of 8-inch water main dating from 1958 was replaced at a cost of about $325,000.

The replacement program focuses on replacing mains where leaks occur,  corrosion has caused damage or the size of the pipe isn’t sufficient.

Work on the $1.6 million project is starting up in other parts of the  metro-east as 1.8 miles of two-inch water mains are replaced with six-inch and  eight-inch mains.

The replacement will enhance water quality and water pressure, as well as  fire protection, the company said. The main replacement projects kicked off in  May with the replacement of about 800 feet of water main on Fahey Place in Belleville.

“Water mains are critical to the delivery of water for use by residents,  businesses, manufacturers and fire fighters,” said Grant Evitts, operations  manager for Illinois American’s Interurban District. “While this infrastructure  is underground and out of sight, it is easy to take it for granted, but at  Illinois American Water, we continue to invest to ensure reliability.”

“The age of the pipes coupled with corrosion and sediment accumulation over  the years makes the replacements necessary,” Evitts said. “Illinois American  Water continues to invest annually in its systems to ensure that local water  quality and service continues to be as good as or better than local, state and  federal quality standards.”