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Met-Ed and its regulators cooperated to make
TMI Unit 2 a dangerous rush job
Three Mile Island's Unit 2 was put into commercial operation literally at the eleventh hour of 1978. At 11 pm December 30, 1978, almost on the eve of the new year, the first switches were thrown. This permitted Met-Ed to claim a $12 million investment tax credit and a $20 million depreciation allowance on its 1978 federal tax return.
Under construction: Met-Ed executives insisted that TMI's Unit 2 be "on the line" by year's end 1978 for tax and rate purposes. Federal and state regulators ignored safety concerns and mechanical problems to enable the utility do this.
The year before the meltdown on Three Mile Island, in 1978, Met-Ed had twenty-eight rate hearings before the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The company sought a rate increase to cover the costs of Unit 2. To justify the increase, Met-Ed outlined its projected costs for operating Unit 2 for the year beginning March 31, 1978. This was called a "future test year." (Met- Ed had originally planned to open Unit 2 in May, but mechanical problems and a local anti-nuclear group that filed two petitions with the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission slowed the utility.) At the PUC hearings, MetEd's overall financial picture was examined.
Only a month before the TMI accident, on February 23, 1979, the judge who presided at the rate hearings recommended to the PUC's commissioners that Met-Ed be granted a rate increase, noting that TMI-2 had been in service since December.
By March 22, just one week before the accident, the PUC had approved a $49 million Met- Ed rate increase. In utility jargon, TMI-2 was now "in the rate base," meaning that the costs incurred by Met-Ed's second nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island could now be passed on to the utility's customers. An important value judgment made by the PUC affecting this decision was whether Unit 2 was "used and useful." And, as the judge had pointed out on February 23, Unit 2 had been in commercial operation since December 30.
But it shouldn't have been.
Unit 2 was shut down 71 per cent of the time between March 28, 1978 -- exactly one year before its crippling accident -- when its reactor first went "critical," and December 30, 1978, when commercial production began.
Numerous shutdown repairs occurred before December 30, 1978. TMI-2 was out for twenty weeks beginning April 23, 1978, while main steam relief valves were replaced. Workmen had to repair steam leaks, primary system valves, water leaks at electrical connections in the steam generators; bearing supports on the turbine generator's main shaft, and blown fuses indicating defective electrical equipment and other components. In all, 22 major design defects were found in Three Mile Island's Unit 2 during the construction phase.
Pump problems plagued Unit 2, as did accidental valve closings. One nuclear worker accidentally shut valves near the water demineralizers on November 3, 1978, stopping the feedwater flow, automatically scramming the reactor. When pumps malfunctioned on November 7, 1978, the feedwater flow was again cut, again scramming the reactor. Both times the auxiliary feedwater system pumped water into the steam generators, carrying heat away from the primary loop. In this second November 1978 accident, core coolant escaped through valves that didn't close, further complicating the problem. In December1978, feedwater problems continued. Unit 2 closed for five days on December 16, 1978, while a main feedwater pump was repaired.
Still, Met-Ed executives insisted that Unit 2 be "on the line" by year's end for tax and rate purposes.
If the nuclear workers at Unit 2 were the beleaguered pioneers of the new technology, Met-Ed's management looked to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ride in like the cavalry. Not that the NRC's inspectors weren't concerned. Their records tell a disturbing story.
TMI Clean Streams award: In 1978, a few months before the Three Mile Island meltdown, a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources official (l) presents this 'Clean Streams Award' to TMI station manager Gary Miller (r).
In November 1978 the NRC told of one inspector's report that "the licensing of Unit 2 will have an impact on the site/corporate staffs. In all probability the overall safety may become worse over the next year due to this increased work load." But Boyce Grier, director of NRC's Region 1 Office of Inspection and Enforcement, defended Met-Ed by drafting a memo stating, "The plant staff was supplemented and changes occurred in advance of the licensing of Unit 2, to preclude the dilution of management attention to the operating unit"
Several days before December 30, 1978, Met-Ed was given a green light by the NRC despite what one inspector described as the lack of test data concerning several plant functions. Included in that list of unknown functions was the opening and closing of the pressurizer's electromatic relief valve -- the same valve that failed to close on March 28, spilling 250,000 gallons of water onto the containment room floor.
The NRC ignored problems in other ways. When citizens tried to testify about the dangers of damage to the uranium core at NRC hearings in 1977, the commission refused to hear testimony. A "Class 9" nuclear incident, as it was called then, or "hypothetical sequence failures" resulting in nuclear core damage, argued Met-Ed's attorneys, was too improbable to warrant serious consideration. The NRC agreed with Met-Ed, and Class 9 incidents were not discussed.
Like all nuclear power plants in the United States, Three Mile Island to this day has no definite plans for disposal of its atomic waste. In 1978, as today, the NRC simply overlooked this problem. On September 19, 1978, John F. O'Leary, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, spoke at Unit 2's dedication ceremony. O'Leary said, "There are three areas that require attention to assure the continued availability of nuclear generated electricity. They are arms proliferation, siting, and licensing of nuclear generating plants and nuclear waste disposal."
Waste disposal facilities will be available in the 1980's, O'Leary declared. (Robert C. Arnold, a Met- Ed vice president, testified before the PUC in 1978 that various decommissioning schemes would be considered by the utility. Not exactly sure how Three Mile Island would handle its waste problem, Arnold said, "In any event, the option which results in the minimum expenditure consistent with an acceptable risk to the public would be selected. ")
Nine days after Unit 2 "came on the line," NRC inspector J.S. Criswell wrote his superiors that "voids" could occur in pressurizers designed by Babcock & Wilcox -- makers of TMI's primary steam system -- when feedwater flow is cut. These voids, wrote Criswell, could cause gauges to malfunction during accidents. This is precisely what happened on the morning of the accident.
A 'Class 9' nuclear incident or 'hypothetical sequence failures' resulting in nuclear core damage, argued Met-Ed, was too improbable to warrant serious consideration. The NRC agreed with Met-Ed.
Babcock & Wilcox plants were safe, responded an NRC safety and licensing board to Criswell's complaints. Gauges shouldn't be made to "cover all anticipated occurrences," Criswell was told. Again and again, NRC's middle and upper management sided with the utility.
As Unit 2 worked into February 2, 1979, Met-Ed announced "surveillance performed on nuclear instrumentation was not properly documented. The surveillance was subsequently repeated and proper documentation was obtained."
On February 9, 1979, Unit 2 was reduced to 92 percent power output while a heater drain pump and heater drain valve were repaired. A heater drain pump, said a Met-Ed official, was a small pump meant to carry condensate from a feedwater heater. A Babcock & Wilcox engineer said feedwater is heated to increase its efficiency in turning the turbine and also to prevent thermal shock; cold water splashing into hot steam generators could create cracks in the system. Unit 2's power output went down to 90 percent until February 26, 1978, when the heater problem was apparently solved.
On February 17, 1979, Unit 1 on Three Mile Island shut down for refueling, scheduled to reopen April 2. NRC officials met March 16, just twelve days before the accident at Unit 2, to decide whether to allow Unit 1 to reopen on schedule. Problems in that reactor's emergency core cooling system had been detected. But the NRC, ever ready to promote nuclear energy as reliable, ruled out an immediate closing of Unit 1 because the "loss of this large block of generating capacity could adversely affect electric system reliability."
Met-Ed and its regulators cooperated to keep Unit 2 "used and useful." On March 6, the turbines again shut down, scramming Unit 2's reactor. Instead of the four or five days Met-Ed had once taken to repair the reactor before going on the line with it, Unit 2 this time was restarted the next day.
Later, Harold Denton of the NRC identified this as the time the valves leading from the auxiliary feedwater system had been closed. According to NRC regulations, Denton said, one auxiliary feedwater valve may be closed a short while for pump testing, but the plant must never operate with both valves closed. Not for one day, let alone two weeks. Denton later would backpedal, saying he thought the valves had been closed only for several days.
In a complex nuclear reactor, can valves be opened and closed, or overlooked for weeks, like the basement tap to the garden hose? Apparently so. At the time of the reactor meltdown, the NRC and Met-Ed said they were not familiar with the procedures used for checking valve positions at Three Mile Island.
On March 23, 1979, one day after the Pennsylvania PUC granted Met-Ed a $49 million rate increase, five days before Unit 2 would become world famous, Met-Ed vice president Jack Herbein issued a press release about the status of the nuclear insurance industry. "No accidents involving radiation release, which posed even a minor threat to the general public, have occurred from insured nuclear plants, including Met-Ed's Three Mile Island Units 1 and 2, or any other nuclear operations," Herbein declared. The American Nuclear Insurers, Herbein continued, "recently announced a premium credit of 29.5 percent applying to all new and renewal property insurance policies for nuclear facilities written on or after March 1, 1979. ANI said the outstanding safety of the nuclear industry has allowed insurers to increase this credit each year."
What Herbein didn't report in his press release was how the money would be split in the event of catastrophe.
The disaster made Met-Ed eligible to receive up to $560 million in property and liability insurance frorm ANI. The expenses incurred buying replacement electricity would be picked up by the customers.
Within one week of issuing the nuclear insurance press release, Jack Herbein was on the telephone to his insurers, and the nuclear power industry would never be the same.
This article originally appeared as a cover story in The Progressive magazine.
--Bill Keisling and Ed Parrone
Posted March 28, 2011
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