US Nuclear Industry Meltdown

The issues have been lining up for a perfect storm of problems for the nuclear industry lately. It wasn’t just Fukushima that turned the industry on it’s head, many other factors have rocked the industry.

Ft. Calhoun nuclear station in Nebraska that has been shut down since April 2011 when a Missouri river flood threatened the safety of the plant. Calhoun has been struggling with meeting the increased oversight demands of the NRC. OPPD, the owner of Calhoun received an insurance payout, attempted to get FEMA money, swore they would not raise rates and then abruptly announced they had hired Exelon to run the plant for them. Now OPPD has just announced they are raising customer rates to cover cash black hole that Calhoun has become on the company. OPPD admitted they were selling excess power to the grid at the same time Calhoun has been offline, indicating the utility does not need Calhoun to meet consumer demand.

Xcel Energy recently announced they intend to raise rates on MN customers in part to cover the ongoing costs to operate their two nuclear plants. Xcel cited lower demand as also playing a role.

Kewaunee nuclear plant announced it will shut down in 2013 citing low midwest wholesale power prices combined with losing a contract to provide power to a nearby city.

Now Exelon is saying it is at least considering the idea of closing or selling the Clinton nuclear plant in Illinois. The plant is newer by US standards. Exelon cites a glut of cheap wind energy in the region as the biggest challenge to Clinton remaining profitable.

Exelon has also just announced they may shut down the Oyster Creek nuclear plant. Exelon cites any possible new expenses and low power prices as the pressures that might cause them to close down the plant faster than the 2019 shut down date. Small cracks in the reactor cap were found in recent weeks and the NRC just announced a special inspection over some irregularities in reporting and procedures during the Hurricane Sandy alert declared at the plant.

Exelon also dropped plans to boost output at the Lasalle and Fitzpatrick nuclear plants. Xcel Energy also recently dropped a plan to uprate the Prairie Island nuclear plant citing lack of profitability of the change.

One new development that is making things even harder on these nuclear operators to make a buck is the NRC demand that they install filtered vent systems on all BWR type reactors very soon. It was discovered as the Fukushima Nuclear accident is analyzed that the unfiltered venting of unit 2 created the largest release of radiation to the environment. A single reactor filter system is estimated to cost about $16 million USD. The nuclear industry is fighting this important safety upgrade with everything they have.

Exelon, the largest nuclear plant owner in the US had a disastrous 3rd quarter. The company’s profits dropped a staggering 51%. Even when sales rebounded in 2009 their income continued to drop.  Exelon cited the high price of nuclear fuel, extended outages, low market prices for electricity and higher expenses as things dragging the company.

Exelon has a combination of owning an aging fleet of reactors that sells power to the wholesale market when they don’t have contracts or the ability to sell direct to consumers. Selling directly gives larger profits, selling to the market right now is dragging down many of the energy companies as the price is so low due to cheap natural gas and low cost wind power.

With the possibility of even more nuclear plant closures we looked at what caused other plants to shut down. Most of the plants forced to shut down are PWR design reactors and failing steam generators is the #1 reason for nuclear plants to shut down. The PWR design uses a specific steam generator that has been found to the tubes inside fail over time. Some have replaced these steam generators but they are extremely expensive.

Most other reasons for shutdowns involved some sort of expensive hard to replace failure, many had a string of safety issues or public referendum attempts to shut the reactors down on top of equipment problems. Just about every instance involved economics to some extent. The costs to repair and continue running the reactor vs. the profits from selling power became an unprofitable equation.

What We Found:

Reactor Type:
PWR  = 11
BWR = 4
Other = 3
Steam generator failure 5
ECCS equipment standards 2
Cracks in pipes 1
Meltdown 2
Post TMI upgrades 2
Vessel embrittlement 1
Multiple failures including human 1
Shut down by local laws 2

Three units also had seismic risk where the plant design was not sufficient as part of the reasons for shutdown, these were Trojan, San Onofre 1 and Humbolt. 5 units had some sort of manpower & multiple safety violation scandal that involved NRC inspections or whistleblowers as part of the closure factors.  Of  the “local law” shutdowns, one was a voter referendum on a public utility, the other the state denied the evacuation plan and preventing the start of the plant. Many other plants had a public pressure component such as Maine Yankee and Trojan where constant voter referendums made the future for the plant uncertain and cost the power companies large sums of money to try to influence a vote.

The combination of a tough energy market, aging reactors and operators reluctant to put any money into the reactors may be tough to overcome in many cases. The Southeast US may fare better than other regions as manufacturing there is strong. Many states also benefit from revenues into their tax coffers from nuclear plants as a larger portion of their tax income compared to some other states.
The post Fukushima changes put even more pressure on these already strained profit margins. We may see the filtered vents be enough to shut down some plants. Exelon hints at possibly shutting down Oyster Creek and Clinton, both would need these new vents if the NRC follows through. Oyster Creek shuts down in 7 years, Clinton is already not generating much in the way of profits.
Where possible power companies are passing on the costs for these expensive nuclear plants to their customers as rate hikes. All are feeling a big strain even before the Fukushima safety changes go into effect.
More Reading:
Below are our notes on previously shut down reactors and the causes. Commercial power reactors from the AEC demonstration reactor program were left out.
Maine Yankee
Type: PWR
Reason: NRC safety violations too expensive to fix, cracked steam generators may have added to it.
” following allegations of safety problems at the plant. The NRC staff identified so many problems that Maine Yankee Atomic Power Co. decided “it would be too costly to correct these deficiences to the extent required by the NRC and decided to shut the plant down”
Multiple public referendums and protests were a large drag on the plant’s ability to continue to operate. It was doubtful the plant could survive another referendum vote.
Zion 1 & 2
Type: Westinghouse PWR
Reason: Steam generator replacement costs too high
A series of incidents at units 1 and 2 caused the NRC to levy a $330,000 fine for poor procedure and operating standards at the plant
Dresden #1
Type: Concept GE BWR
Reason: Cost to meet post TMI safety standards too high
“On Oct. 31, 1978, the unit was shut down for maintenance. While it was off-line, the incident at Three Mile Island occurred and the ensuing regulations that were enacted made the multi-million dollar investment to bring Unit 1 into compliance economically unfeasible.”
Millstone #1
Type: GE BWR
Reason: Leaking valve forced shutdown, multiple equipment failures found. Whistleblower suits over failure to maintain plant.
San Onofre 1, (2 & 3)
Type: Unit 1 = Westinghouse PWR
Reason: Had an ongoing fight with NRC over lack of seismic ability of the design, failed voluntary upgrades. Cracks in steam generator tubes appeared to be nail in the coffin by 1992
Units 2 & 3 design failure in replacement steam generators still up in the air
Indian Point #1
Type: PWR
Reason: The Unit 1 reactor was shut down on October 31, 1974 because the emergency core cooling system did not meet regulatory requirements.
Trojan NPP
Type: Westinghouse PWR
Reason: Needed new steam generators, $4.5 mil spent to defeat ballot measure, NRC whistleblower said plant was unsafe to operate, it sat near a faultline

Conn Yankee (Haddam Neck)
Type: Westinghouse PWR
Reason: ECCS piping
The plant was formally retired on December 6, 1996, when the Board of Directors voted to permanently close the plant after an economic analysis determined the cost of supplying electricity was not beneficial to its customers. This site gives another reason: The shutdown decision was based upon the discovery that the emergency core cooling system piping was undersized in conjuction with the poor condition of the steam generators and the high cost of correcting these issues.
Yankee Rowe
Type: PWR
Reason: shut down prematurely due to reactor pressure vessel embrittlement concerns
Type: GE BWR
Reason: Never operated – county proved it could not be safely evacuated and invoked local law to prevent the plant from starting
Ft. St Vrain
Type: gas cooled reactor
Reason: cracked steam pipes, high downtime & costs vs. income
Rancho Seco
Type: B&W PWR
Reason: Public vote to shut down 1989, owned by public utility
Serious water loss incident in 1978 “3rd worst nuke incident in US”, Constant outages contributed to it being voted to shut
Fermi #1
Type: Fast Breeder, sodium
Reason: partial meltdown, never was able to operate fully again after repairs
Type: B&W PWR
Reason: Meltdown accident

Type: Westinghouse PWR
Reason: Dominion lost power sale contract, selling power on open market w/ price too low to make operating the plant profitable
Humbolt Bay
Type: BWR
Reason: TMI safety upgrades and seismic faults found
Peach Bottom #1
Type: helium graphite moderated
Reason: not found


This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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