Apparently, someone on Senator Feinstein’s staff believes that the concrete delamination (cracking) issue at Crystal River was an age-related issue. With that incorrect knowledge of the situation, they decided that it could be used to publicly discredit the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s cooperation in an industry-led initiative to extend the operating lives of nuclear plants beyond the 60 years that 81 of them have already been licensed to operate.
Whoever suggested to the Senator that she ask that question with that context is providing poor staff support and putting their member in a potentially embarrassing position. They are violating the trust that she puts in them to keep her well-informed and to help prioritize her time and attention.
Does Crystal River’s Concrete Problem Conflict With Extended Plant Life?
During the February 24, 2016 Senate Energy and Water appropriations committee hearing, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) — the ranking member of the committee — asked a question about the Crystal River containment dome concrete cracking.
Here is a clip of the senator’s question and the commissioners’ responses.
Chairman Burns attempted to answer Senator Feinstein’s question. He can be forgiven for not getting it quite right; he was not at the agency during much of the time that the issue was current and he is a lawyer, not a technical expert.
Commissioner Ostendorff provided a much more complete response while Senator Feinstein listened intently and asked good questions to clarify her understanding. In his role as a commissioner, Ostendorff did not point any fingers, but he made it clear that there was a procedure related issue. What he left out was the fact that the failed task is not something done routinely for any plant, but it is a task that has been done successfully by experts at dozens of plants. Though there may be a counter-example, the procedure is generally done only once or twice in the lifetime of a nuclear plant.
The concrete cracks (aka delaminations) did not slowly develop or even suddenly appear while the plant was operating. Company employees who were attempting to make an access hole created the cracks. They were making the hole so that they could replace the plant’s steam generators. Those major components are too large to extract from the containment of that particular plant design — a B&W 177 — through any installed access points.
While making the hole, the workers used an inadequate procedure to loosen (de-tension) the reinforcing steel bars running through the concrete. Dozens of plants in the United States have created containment access holes, replaced steam generators and successfully closed the holes without any similar issues.
At Crystal River, Progress Energy determined that steam generator replacement work was routine enough to be done in house, without hiring the expertise of contractors that specialized in that complex task. They decided the extra $15 million that the specialists bid over their own internal estimate was important.
The people working for the plant owner broke the concrete structure that surrounds the steel containment. The decision makers who chose to do the job in house put their workers into a bad situation without the proper support or training. The cracks had nothing to do with concrete aging or the performance of large, passive components.
The situation eventually led Duke Energy — which had purchased Progress Energy after its workers had damaged the plant and after the company’s initial repair efforts had been unsuccessfully attempted — to choose to permanently close the facility.
There was no clear path to a successful repair and there was a large workforce employed at the non-revenue generating facility.
“Sea Story” – Suggesting Member Questions for Hearings
Most Americans aren’t familiar enough with the congressional hearing process to understand that the questions posed are prepared well in advance by staff members for the congressman or senator that asks the question. Since each member has a very limited amount of time for asking questions during a typical hearing, the process of selecting the questions for the member to ask can be rather intriguing.
In some cases, a member has one or more staff members with particular expertise in the hearing subject matter and has knowledge of a politically important issue that is worth questioning. There is also a process that is not well publicized, but is well known among denizens of “The Hill” for constituents to encourage the staff to suggest particular questions. It is possible for those questions to be part of a deal with unspoken terms and conditions.
I’ve been involved in a few such deals, some in my position as an agency staff member with a particular request we wanted publicly discussed and one in May 2005 as the head of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
Since the AAE engagement doesn’t involve any agreements with an employer regarding confidentiality, I can share it with you.
One of my business associates had a close friendship with a senior staff member for a Senator with a seat on a committee that had influence on the DOE budget. On a strictly friendship basis and because he had a personal non-financial interest in our intriguing project, he agreed to help us craft a question about the DOE’s support for high temperature gas reactor fuel development and testing.
The budget line supporting the on-going program had been reduced in the FY2006 budget request. That reduction would stretch an already lengthy timeline and affect our technology development plans.
As a result of the question being asked at the hearing, I was contacted within a day or so by Bill Magwood’s office and invited to give him and his staff a presentation explaining our interest in the program. I gathered my team of part-time associates and partners and provided brief to a fairly crowded room of interested attendees whose attention had been captured by our inserted question.
Much later, I was later told that there is a “going rate” in the six figures for getting a member to ask that kind of question, but ours had no dollars or deals associated with it.