Editorial: Wrong time to relicense Seabrook

  • This May 3, 2011, file photo shows the Seabrook nuclear power plant in Seabrook, N.H. Seabrook came online in August 1990. It’s currently licensed to operate until 2030 and has applied for a 20-year extension. AP

Published: 4/17/2016 12:15:19 AM

As if New Hampshire’s Seacoast didn’t have enough problems, what with rising sea levels and a rapidly growing population, this year could mark the relicensing of the controversial Seabrook nuclear power plant.

The plant opened in 1990 with a 40-year license that expires in 2030. In 2010, the plant’s primary owner,
NextEra Energy, asked to renew Seabrook Station’s license for an additional 20 years.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision could come this year, but it shouldn’t. It’s impossible to say, even a decade from now, what the plant’s true condition will be. In fact, its overall health and safety is under question even now due to a phenomenon know as an alkali-silica reaction that weakens the concrete that helps shield the public from radiation.

The reaction, which can affect piers, bridges, retaining walls and other structures, occurs when some types of concrete are moist. A chemical reaction forms that creates a gel that absorbs more moisture and cracks concrete, according to the Portland Cement Association.

Seabrook Station is the first U.S. nuclear power plant to have been diagnosed as suffering from ASR. There is no quick and easy way to assess the extent of the damage or the degree to which the steel rebar that contributes greatly to the strength of the concrete has itself been eroded.

The plant is routinely assessed for damage, and researchers at the University of Texas have been recruited by NextEra to figure out how to beef up the concrete to extend the plant’s life. Their report could affect the NRC’s decision.

It would be folly to rely on even the most cautious report to predict the progress of the erosion. Sea levels are rising, and the ocean water in the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than anywhere else in the Atlantic. Warm water expands. That will raise the water table on the coast, increase its salinity and acidity, and, presumably, the pressure of the water pushing up on the plant, which was built on the edge of a saltmarsh.

There’s also the question of the credibility of the NRC.

President Obama has described it as a “captive agency,” heavily influenced by the industry it regulates. The agency hurt its already tarnished reputation when in 2012 it approved a 20-year relicensing of the vintage Vermont Yankee power plant, which had suffered numerous leaks and a collapsed cooling tower, and crucial panels were blown out during a pressure test.

A decade from now it might be appropriate to consider relicensing Seabrook. To do it now would be idiocy.

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