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Troubles Plague U.S. Nuclear Plant Akin to Chernobyl

May 18, 1986|LARRY B. STAMMER and LEE DYE | Times Staff Writers

RICHLAND, Wash. — An aging nuclear power plant near here that is strikingly similar to the failed Soviet Chernobyl facility has been troubled for years by equipment failures, poor workmanship and human errors that have compromised vital safety systems, according to official documents.

Department of Energy records on the Hanford nuclear plant filed here report that nuts, bolts, pieces of broken equipment and even old flashlight parts have been flushed through the reactor cooling system, damaging internal parts. Valves and doors that are integral to the safety system have failed, either through human error or equipment malfunction.

Unscheduled Shutdowns

Since October of 1982, there have been 42 unscheduled shutdowns of the reactor--each lasting from one to two days and almost all of them for safety reasons. This year alone, the reactor has been shut down six times because the cooling water was contaminated by leaking radioactive fuel.

Plant officials blame the recent shutdowns on leaks from tiny punctures in the protective zirconium that encases the plant's uranium fuel. They believe that the punctures may be caused by broken parts rattling through the reactor.

Now, the graphite core that is at the heart of the reactor is warping and the metal tubes that pass through the core are becoming bowed and brittle, making it increasingly difficult to insert and retrieve uranium fuel rods as well as the control rods that are essential in shutting down the nuclear reaction.

Department of Energy officials say that unless the tubes are replaced and the graphite core restored within the next few years, the production life of the reactor cannot be expected to last beyond the mid-1990s.

Despite such problems, the reactor here never has had a major accident and there never has been a significant release of radioactivity into the atmosphere, according to records and DOE officials.

Under New Scrutiny

Nonetheless, because of its similarity to the Chernobyl plant, the Hanford plant is under new scrutiny. The Energy Department, which owns the plant, has ordered two safety investigations of the reactor and invited the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a third. A hearing on the Hanford plant is scheduled Monday in Portland, Ore., by a House Interior Committee subcommittee chaired by Rep. James Weaver (D-Ore.)

Environmentalists in the Northwest have focused their energy on closing the plant, rallying under the cry of "shut down before a meltdown."

The Hanford plant, designated by the Department of Energy as the N reactor, is one of the nation's oldest operating plutonium production reactors. Commissioned on Dec. 31, 1963, it accounts for an estimated 20% of the nation's plutonium production for nuclear weapons. In 1966, it was modified to also generate 860 megawatts of electricity for the Washington Public Power Supply System, which wholesales the power to other distributors.

Like the Chernobyl plant, the reactor here has a graphite core and no containment dome, despite early warnings in then-secret government documents that the accidental release of the reactor's fission products would be "so catastrophic that adequate containment must be provided."

Operators of the plant say that a repeat of the Chernobyl disaster could not happen here because of the plant's numerous and redundant safety systems.

Indeed, one official called the reactor "meltdown proof."

Meltdown Unlikely

"We have yet to identify any mechanism, credible or incredible, which would allow a (graphite fire) to occur . . . or result in a full core meltdown," said Michael J. Lawrence, DOE operations manager at Hanford.

Engineers who run the plant today blame many of the past problems on an attitude that placed production values above safety. That attitude changed after the near-disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, they said.

"During the early '70s, the mission was to produce plutonium; very little money was provided for the reactor in terms of maintenance of systems," said Thomas E. Dabrowski, director of reactor engineering for UNC Nuclear Industries, which operates the plant under contract to the DOE.

Today, things are different, officials said. "It is better, safer and operated more efficiently than the day it started up," Lawrence said.

Government records show that safety issues here have been a concern for decades, beginning with the decision not to build a containment dome that could withstand the kind of explosion that ripped open the Chernobyl reactor building.

Result 'Catastrophic'

Secret government reports from the 1950s and 1960s, since declassified, warned that the accidental release of the Hanford reactor's fission products would be "catastrophic."

Those reports repeatedly questioned whether anything short of full containment would be adequate, but conceded at one point that the decision to build the plant without it would result in "lower cost."

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