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No radiation released from weak spot at Beaver County nuclear plant

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 11:40 a.m.

Weak spots in welds on reactor vessel heads like the one found at a Beaver County nuclear power plant have been a problem for the industry since the 1980s.

But a Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman said Wednesday the problem at Beaver Valley Power Station Unit 2 in Shippingport “doesn't rise to the level where we would do additional inspection work.”

On a national scale, the commission continues to investigate the effect of what it calls “primary water stress corrosion cracking” on pressurized water reactors, especially as plants continue to age.

The metal alloy used in the welds on older reactors was susceptible to corrosion, experts said.

“The NRC is continuing to look at that issue,” spokesman Neil Sheehan said. “In the meantime, we expect plant owners to look at their vessel heads as often as possible.”

A spokeswoman for FirstEnergy, which operates the plant, said company inspectors found the weak spot in one of 66 welds on the reactor vessel head at Beaver Valley Power Station Unit 2 during a regularly scheduled refueling and testing process.

No radiation was released, FirstEnergy and the commission both said.

The corrosion problems at nuclear power plants have cost the industry “at least $10 billion in the last 30 years because of forced and extended outages, increased inspection requirements, and component repairs and replacements,” according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a California nonprofit that conducts research and development relating to the generation, delivery and use of electricity.

The average age of U.S. commercial reactors is about 32 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

U.S. commercial nuclear reactors are licensed to operate for 40 years by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission but can apply for 20-year extensions.

The commission began in 1991 to establish a series of recommendations for inspecting the welds at pressurized water plants that culminated in 2003 with establishing specific inspection requirements.

First Energy detected the microscopic spot on the Beaver Valley vessel head Saturday through ultrasound and other testing, said Jennifer Young, spokeswoman for FirstEnergy.

The plant, which shut down for routine refueling Sept. 24, was licensed by the NRC in 1987.

FirstEnergy is replacing 65 of the 157 fuel assemblies and inspecting the reactor vessel head during the shutdown. The weak spot was not detected during the last inspection 18 months ago, Young said.

The weak spot will be fixed with a stronger alloy weld. The reactor vessel head is scheduled to be replaced in 2017.

The company would not say when the plant will reopen.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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