Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant
After a lengthy approval process, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted NextEra Energy Seabrook a renewed license to operate Seabrook Station through 2050.
Process for renewing the license
On June 1, 2010, NextEra Energy filed an application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to renew the plant's operating license for 20 years -- from 2030 to 2050. Under NRC regulations, the original operating license for a nuclear power plant has a term of 40 years. A plant license may be renewed for up to an additional 20 years.
The NRC license renewal process generally takes 22 to 30 months following application submission. Aside from a thorough review and inspection, the renewal process also includes several public hearings.
Despite vocal opposition from opponents of the license extension, on March 1, 2019 NRC officials issued a letter stating that the plant had been approved for its license renewal up to the year 2050.
About the plant
The Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant is a pressurized water reactor that sits on a 900-acre site in the towns of Seabrook, Hampton, and Hampton Falls. It began operation in 1990 and generates approximately 1 million watts of electricity -- enough to power 900,000 homes daily. Forty-four percent of New Hampshire's electricity is generated by Seabrook, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Proponents of nuclear power say it is a clean energy source that helps reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Opponents believe the risks of radioactive contamination outweigh the benefits.
Nuclear power safety was thrust back into the media spotlight in 2011 with the earthquake/tsunami-induced meltdown of Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. Spent fuel rods caught fire and released radioactive material after the plant's cooling system failed.
According to NextEra Energy:
- The Seabrook plant is designed to withstand the force of the earthquake that hit the Japanese plants, which is significantly higher than any recorded earthquake in New England history.
- The plant is located two miles inland and elevated 20 feet above sea level to protect against flooding and extreme storm surges.
Spent fuel rods are stored in cooling pools at Seabrook and other nuclear plants across the country because the US lacks a central repository. Congress passed a law in 2002 designating Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a repository for high-level nuclear waste, but Energy Secretary Steven Chu decided to terminate the project in 2010. In March 2019, President Trump released his budget proposal for 2020 fiscal year, which calls for restarting the NRC licensing process for the Yucca Mountain facility.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's Operating Safety Review Team released its evaluation of Seabrook in April 2012. The investigation uncovered alkali-silica reaction (ASR) in several concrete structures. ASR is a slow chemical reaction that ultimately leads to micro-cracks in concrete and cement.
The ASR problem became a key sticking point in the renewal process, with many saying the license should not be extended until the issue was completely addressed.
The plant developed and began implementing a plan to mitigate the reaction.
The NRC eventually agreed with an independent nuclear advisory group that the plant was safe to operate despite the ASR because of extensive safety margins in the plant’s design, like its thick, steel reinforced walls. Part of the license approval included an amendment that requires NextEra extensively monitor and manage the ASR in the coming decades.
The NRC issued its Safety Evaluation Report of the Seabrook Station on June 8, 2012. The report detailed other problems that needed to be addressed, including water leaks between the two containment shells surrounding the reactor, aging structures including bolts and welds, and more.
- Opponents of the Seabrook license extension filed federal action against the NRC in March 2012, accusing the commission of violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it voted against allowing three groups (the Seacoast Anti-Pollution League, the New Hampshire Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Beyond Nuclear) into a NEPA hearing to discuss energy alternatives to nuclear power. In January 2013, the Federal Appeals Court rejected the petition of the groups, barring them from participating in the process.
- Friends of the Coast/New England Coalition, which had been protesting the relicensing of Seabrook Station, reached a settlement with station owner NextEra in August of 2013.
- Weeks before the decision to renew the license had been reached, the Newburyport-based group C-10 filed an emergency petition with the NRC, urging them not to approve the extension due to the alkali-silica degradation. The NRC considered but eventually denied all of the petition’s requests. C-10 will voice their concerns at a hearing on the ASR issue in the summer of 2019.
"The license for the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant should be renewed."
- One uranium fuel pellet can deliver the power production equivalent of 1 ton of coal, 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, or 149 gallons of oil.
Low Electricity Cost:
- Nuclear plants are the lowest-cost producer of baseload electricity. The average production cost of 2.14 cents per kilowatt-hour includes the costs of operating and maintaining the plant, purchasing fuel and paying for the management of used fuel.
- Nuclear power plants emit fewer greenhouse gases than coal, fuel or gas plants.
- Nuclear energy is not affected by weather conditions, volatile market fluctuations, or dependence on foreign suppliers.
"The license for the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant should not be renewed."
- Accidents and malfunctions at nuclear power plants can result in the release of large amounts of radiation. Human exposure to high levels of radiation can result in severe illness, cancer and death.
Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attacks:
- Most plants are designed to withstand natural events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. These plants could not withstand the impact of an airliner. Sabotage is also a possibility. There have also been reports of "violent extremists obtaining insider positions" at U.S. utilities.
Waste disposal remains a serious challenge:
- High level nuclear waste (plutonium, uranium and spent fuel rods) is highly radioactive and remains dangerous for thousands of years. There is approximately 70,000 metric tons of high level nuclear waste stored at reactor sites across the country. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandated the federal government establish a national repository, but it has yet to do so.
- The construction of a new nuclear power plant can take about 10 years and cost approximately $2 billion. It can also cost billions of dollars to decommission older plants.