Friday, December 11, 2009

Every year, it's cheaper to keep 'er...

December 11th, 2009

How in the world DOES the NRC measure risk?

The Penn State Breazeale Reactor (PSBR) has been relicensed for another 20 years (see World Nuclear News article, shown below).

It's only used part-time. It does not power the campus. It does not provide medical isotopes. Much of its use now is just for "operator training" which is better done at other, more modern facilities (PSBR is the nation's oldest operating reactor).

Many university reactors are only operated part-time, because there really aren't that many people who want to go into nuclear reactor operations these days. Some so-called "basic research" is done with the Penn State reactor, but that research could easily be done elsewhere (if it's even worth doing). Like any university, Penn State wants to be on the forefront of everything. But this?

In 2005, during the reactor's 50th anniversary, the university applied to renew PSBR's license for another 20 years. If the license application hadn't been made during the hopeful Bush era, perhaps the trusties of the educational institution would have let it lapse in 2009, since the nuclear renaissance has been exposed for what it really was: Just another attempt to steal hundreds of billions of dollars from the public, by the utilities who won't pay a dime themselves for new reactors, or for insurance, or for waste management, or for terrorism protection, or for metallurgical studies, or for health studies, or for new evacuation assessments in view of new population figures, or for modern earthquake studies, and on and on and on. What renaissance, indeed?

But in 2005 the show was in full swing. We were told that scores of new reactors were going to be built all over America, and hundreds more around the world. Most of those schemes have already fallen through, and most of the rest are in big trouble, because financially, NO ONE CAN JUSTIFY A NEW NUKE. If you don't believe me, you only need to read the Wall Street Journal's many articles more carefully... Or many other financial assessments.

So who needs Penn State's old reactor? Nobody, that's who. But in any given year, as with all the old commercial reactors, it's easier to just keep it going than to close it down and decommission it once and for all. And the trusties probably wonder: What if, say, next year, there IS a nuclear "renaissance"? Penn State might be left behind!

And so, Penn State's old reactor will continue to create nuclear waste so that a few scientists can use it during regular school hours, and a few reactor operators can be trained, and if a terrorist wants to destroy State College, where I used to live, the reactor will be there as a sitting target. For nothing.

It appears that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants license extensions for so-called "research" reactors just as automatically as it grants renewals for commercial power reactor licenses. The agency has NEVER failed to give a commercial license renewal -- I believe the current number is 57 out of 57 requests. They've granted 100% of the requests for onsite dry fuel storage, as well -- nearly 40 of those have been issued so far, despite well-documented cases of fraud in numerous parts of the dry cask fabrication industry here and abroad!

But on and on it goes.

Where WILL it all end? It will end in accidents and fury.


Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

The author began studying nuclear issues around the time he was briefly at PSU, in the 1970s.


Regulation and Safety
Another twenty years for USA's oldest reactor
11 December 2009

After over half a century of operations, the oldest research reactor in the USA has been licensed to operate for a further 20 years.

The Penn State Breazeale Reactor (PSBR) first received an operating licence from the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1955 and went critical on 15 August that year. Its licence number - R-2 - belies that it was in fact the first research reactor to be licensed by the forerunner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Licence R-1 was reserved by AEC and granted retrospectively to a reactor at the North Carolina State College which had started up in September 1953 but had already ceased operating by before PSBR went critical. The Carolina reactor never restarted; the R-2 licence for PSBR has never lapsed.

Penn State University was one of the first US universities to take advantage of President Dwight Eisenhower's 1954 Atoms for Peace initiative by building its own reactor. The original reactor consisted of a core of plate-type fuel elements mounted in a grid plate, suspended from a movable bridge in an open pool of water. Initially, the reactor's power level was limited to 100 kWt. In 1960, the authorized maximum operating power level was increased to 200 kWt. Then in 1965, the original core was replaced with a TRIGA reactor core and control system. At the time, TRIGA-type reactors had been installed at other facilities but the PSBR was the first existing research reactor to be converted to a TRIGA. The TRIGA core had a maximum steady-state power level of 1 MWt and included a pulse capability allowing a peak pulse power of approximately 2000 MWt.

Over the years, the reactor has undergone several modifications including major renovations to the replace the original General Atomics TRIGA control system with a new analogue-digital control system, completed in 1991.

The PSBR is the second oldest research reactor operating in the world today. Only the F-1 graphite pile reactor at Russia's Kurchatov Institute, which started up at the end of 1946, is older. The American Nuclear Society recognized PSBR's historical status nearly two decades ago, presenting it with a Nuclear Historic Landmark Award in 1991.

Research reactors are generally not used for power generation but instead to provide a neutron source for research or other purposes. They are smaller and simpler than power reactors, and operate at lower temperatures, but like power reactors are still subject to International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) safeguards and inspections. The PSBR is used for experimental, research and educational purposes, including student laboratory exercises and operator training. It currently operates for approximately 2000 hours per year, with the reactor critical for between 840 and 1040 hours per year.

Penn State University applied for a 20-year licence renewal for the reactor in 2005, the same year the reactor celebrated its 50th anniversary. After a full safety review carried out by the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, the regulator has ruled that "PSU can continue to operate the PSBR, in accordance with the renewed licence, without posing a significant risk to the health and safety of the public, facility personnel, or the environment."

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