Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2021
NextEra Energy, owner of two nuclear power reactors at Point Beach on Lake Michigan, has filed to extend their operating licenses by 20 more years. The reactors, 51 and 49 years old, are already operating well past their original 40-year limit.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has a history of “rubber stamping” such license extensions. Between 2000 and 2017, the agency approved 61 reactor license extensions and denied none. Point Beach, in 2005, already got a 20-year extension from the NRC, and it’s expected that the second will be approved in spite of public opposition.
Furthermore, the NRC granted NextEra a 17% “power uprate” request in 2011, which allows Next- Era to push the Point Beach units harder than ever, in spite of their age.
The threat of a 40-year-old machine running for 80 years has sparked protest by those living nearby and watchdog groups. Physicians for Social Responsibility-Wisconsin filed a formal petition with the NRC on behalf of residents and a hearing on the license application was granted.
Unsafe operations at Point Beach are numerous and some could have devastating consequences for the Great Lakes. https://nukewatchinfo.org/unsafe-operations-routine-at-point-beach/
One of the more serious problems with the reactors is degraded fuel cladding. “Cladding” is the zirconium tube that holds the uranium fuel in bundles inside the reactor core. This metal becomes brittle after years of bombardment by the neutrons created by the uranium’s chain reactions. According to Arnold Gundersen, a nuclear engineer and former reactor operator, the Point Beach reactors “do not meet basic licensing requirements.” He goes on to say, “Point Beach is the worst neutron-embrittled reactor pressure vessel in the country, at risk of fracturing like glass in an emergency.” The issue of cladding degradation was brought to the NRC in 2007, but 14 years later it has not yet acted on the proposed rule making.
Other concerns raised by the petition are environmental. Lake Michigan is already showing symptoms of climate chaos from increased rainfall, temperatures, and shoreline development. Point Beach adds to these issues, taking in over 800 million gallons of water per day. Most of this water is returned to the lake, now heated, killing aquatic organisms, and adding hot water to an environment already out of balance.
As if these reasons are not enough to shut down Point Beach, the argument that keeping the reactors functioning would be good for Wisconsin’s economy is flimsy. The cost of electricity produced by Point Beach is high; currently at $55.82 per megawatt hour, a cost that will increase to $122.45 by 2033. This is 63% higher than the average wholesale price for electricity in the area, and much higher than renewables.
What will it take to get the NRC to deny a reactor license extension? Critics of nuclear energy hope to find out soon.