Scientist 'unsure' of Seabrook nuclear plant's safety; NextEra says claims 'simply wrong'

Jack Shea/Staff photo/Dr. Victor Saouma led a discussion on concrete degredation at the Seabrook, New Hampshire, nuclear power plant Thursday night at Newburyport Public Library..

NEWBURYPORT — A University of Colorado engineering professor told the C-10 Foundation's annual meeting Thursday he believes testing on concrete degradation at the Seabrook, New Hampshire, nuclear power plant has been "inadequate" and that he's "not sure" about the safety of the plant.

Victor Saouma, a professor of civil and structural engineering at the university in Boulder, discussed the science behind ASR — a chemical process that causes small cracks in concrete — and his critiques of how it is being handled at Seabrook Station. After ASR was first detected at the plant in 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined the affected structures could continue operating safely. 

C-10, a Newburyport-based group, was formed to protect public health and the environment within 10 miles of the plant. It focuses on monitoring the safety of plant. While none of Cape Ann’s communities lie within the recognized 10-mile evacuation zone in the event of any accident, the plant sits just 17 miles across the water from Rockport’s Halibut Point State Park, and is visible across the water on clear days from Rockport’s Halibut Point area and from Gloucester’s village of Lanesville.

About 75 people packed the Newburyport Public Library's Program Room on Thursday to hear Saouma. 

Earlier this year, the NRC approved an amendment to address the presence of ASR at Seabrook Station and in March it granted the plant a 20-year license extension through 2050.

C-10 has long pushed for closer monitoring of the plant’s ASR, and prior to the extension being granted, it was to have a hearing on concrete degradation at Seabrook Station with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

The hearing on the plant, owned by NextEra Energy, was recently scheduled for Sept. 24-27.

Saouma said Thursday he received a $700,000 grant from the NRC to study ASR, and that the National Institute was granted another $7 million, all of which he said was "wasted because the NRC never listened" to what he or other researchers said after completing their studies.

Saouma said that when he read the NRC's analysis of testing done at Seabrook Station he was "shocked" by its "sophomoric approach," "simplistic analysis," and the "erroneous assumptions that were made."

"There is a mismatch between what the scientific community knows and what is being enforced by the NRC," said Saouma. 

Diane Screnci, public affairs officer for the NRC, said in an email that after an extensive review, the commission has concluded that "actions have been taken or will be taken with respect to managing the effects of aging of the concrete structures affected by ASR such that there is reasonable assurance that Seabrook will continue to operate safely."  

"In addition, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards agreed with the staff’s conclusion that, while some of the structures are degraded, they remain fully capable of performing their functions through the period of extended operation," Screnci wrote.

During the meeting, Saoma said that while ASR has been discovered in several American dams and bridges, Seabrook is the first nuclear plant in the country where it has been detected. It has been found at nuclear plants in Canada and Japan, both of which he said closed for economic reasons.

He said ASR reduces the shear strength of concrete, and that he believes the biggest concern is that it will reduce Seabrook Station's ability to resist seismic activity.

Saouma also said ASR can greatly accelerate with increases in temperature, and that accelerated expansion tests were never carried out at Seabrook.

He said other essential ASR tests were not carried out at Seabrook by NextEra's contractors, and that the company's proposed monitoring of Seabrook's ASR is inadequate because there would be "too heavy a reliance on surface cracks," and not enough attention to interior expansion.

When addressing whether he believes Seabrook Station is safe, Saouma said he cannot be sure because the tests on its concrete don't provide an answer.

"I don't know because the tests and analysis that were conducted are fundamentally inadequate," said Saouma.

Peter Robbins, director of nuclear communications for NextEra Energy, said that any claims or inferences by C-10 or Saouma that Seabrook Station isn't safe are "simply wrong and are not supported by facts."

"The facts are straightforward: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently concluded a highly detailed, multi-year evaluation of Seabrook’s infrastructure and systems. This process involved years of scrutiny by independent technical experts and more than a dozen public meetings with opportunities for the public to comment," said Robbins.

He noted that the 20-year license extension by the NRC confirmed "that Seabrook’s plan to monitor and address ASR is effective. In addition, every aspect of Seabrook Station’s operation is evaluated by NRC inspectors 365 days a year. At the end of the day, Seabrook Station is an important regional asset that continues to play a vital role in our energy infrastructure by supplying clean, reliable and low-cost electricity to New England."

Saouma said he does not think the NRC had an adequate basis to relicense Seabrook for an additional 20 years, and urged local residents to push for more testing of the ASR.

Diane Curran, a public interest attorney representing C-10, urged local residents to attend C-10's hearing in September, and stressed that the group's success in having the plant's license amendment denied would force NextEra to re-do its ASR monitoring program for both its current and next relicensing terms.

"We are at a critical moment that NextEra has the burden of proving that this program they've proposed is adequate," said Curran. "This is your opportunity. It's not going to come up again." 

To view video recordings of the meeting, go to the C-10 Foundation's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/C10Foundation/videos/664740500664507/  

 Jack Shea may be contacted at 978-961-3154 or jshea@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.