The Bulletin Board

Nuclear Regulatory Commission official visiting Seabrook Station and its aging concrete

By: - August 10, 2021 1:01 pm
Rep. Annie Kuster sits during a congressional hearing

Congresswoman Annie Kuster has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission how it is handling Seabrook’s concrete degradation. (Greg Nash-Pool | Getty Images)

This story was updated on Aug. 10 at 2:40 p.m. with a statement from NextEra Energy.

Amid growing questions over concrete degradation, a top official from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is visiting Seabrook Station on Tuesday.

At a congressional hearing in July, Congresswoman Annie Kuster asked the federal agency how it is handling Seabrook’s concrete degradation and how it is monitoring the cracks. She also asked whether independent experts have been involved in determining the best oversight practices.

Commissioner Jeff Baran’s visit to Seabrook is part of a tour that was planned prior to the July congressional hearing. 

“We’re going to be looking around and asking those kinds of tough questions,” he said at the July hearing.

Peter Robbins, director of nuclear communications for NextEra Energy, which owns Seabrook Station, said in a statement: “Hosting NRC commissioners and elected officials is a normal course of business throughout the nuclear industry, and we are pleased that Commissioner Baran chose to visit Seabrook. Seabrook Station is an important regional asset that continues to play a vital role in our energy infrastructure by supplying clean, reliable, and low-cost energy to New England.”

Seabrook is the first nuclear reactor in the country where the problem of degrading concrete has been identified, an issue the NRC has known about for the past 12 years. The degradation is caused by alkali silica reaction, or ASR, which is the result of a chemical mismatch in the aggregate that leads to micro cracks when concrete is exposed to high humidity. Those cracks can lead to deformations or shifting of walls, and weaken the structural integrity of buildings over time. A concrete failure is one of the biggest public health concerns that nuclear watchdog group C-10 has been monitoring.

The organization is asking the federal agency to improve its oversight of the concrete degradation. But recommendations about additional safety conditions that the federal agency could impose as part of Seabrook’s license renewal were thrown out on procedural grounds in a 2020 opinion released by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which Kuster called “frustrating.”

“We are not satisfied that the NRC has done all it can to ‘protect people and the environment,’ ” wrote Natalie Treat, the executive director of C-10 in a letter to all three nuclear regulatory commissioners on Aug. 9.

Treat and other C-10 board members met with Baran on Aug. 3 to discuss questions and concerns in advance of his visit. Dr. Victor Saouma, a concrete expert who works with C-10, also attended the meeting and expressed concerns over the deficiencies in the aging-concrete protocols federal regulators are allowing NextEra, which is headquartered in Juno Beach, Fla., to use at Seabrook. 

One major concern highlighted in the Aug. 9 letter touches on the fact that little is known about how fast the concrete will degrade. C-10 and Saouma say that independent experts should be involved when it comes to establishing margins of error around models that show the condition’s progression.

Treat also emphasized the importance of making information about the condition publicly available.

“Data related to the safety parameters of Seabrook’s structure should not be proprietary, since Seabrook’s safety is a public concern and part of how the public is reassured is through having access to the actual data,” Treat writes.

In the letter, she asks what circumstances would prompt the agency to revisit Seabrook’s concrete management program.

Robbins said “the facts are straightforward” regarding Seabrook’s concrete.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently concluded a highly detailed, multi-year evaluation of Seabrook’s infrastructure and systems. This process involved years of scrutiny by independent technical experts and more than a dozen public meetings with opportunities for the public to comment,” he said. “The NRC has confirmed that Seabrook is positioned for future operation and that Seabrook’s plan to monitor and address ASR is effective. In addition, every aspect of Seabrook Station’s operation is evaluated by NRC inspectors 365 days a year.”

Over 4 million people live within a 50-mile radius of Seabrook, which generates enough electricity to power about 1 million homes.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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