Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant Is Shut Down Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Deeming the cost of safety tests too high, the Yankee Atomic Electric Company decided to shut down its nuclear power plant permanently.

Summary of Event

In February, 1992, Andrew C. Kadak, Kadak, Andrew C. president of the company that had operated the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant for thirty-two years, announced that the plant would be closed permanently. The plant had been shut down since September of the previous year, because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had ordered the company to conduct tests of the reactor container to determine whether radiation embrittlement of its steel and its welds was advanced enough to lead to rupture under emergency conditions. When estimates for the testing and possible repair or replacement of the reactor container parts came to nearly $23 million, the company realized that it could not recoup such an expenditure in the foreseeable future and elected to close down the plant. Nuclear energy;power plants Yankee Rowe nuclear plant Power plants;nuclear Energy;nuclear [kw]Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant Is Shut Down (Feb., 1992) [kw]Nuclear Plant Is Shut Down, Yankee Rowe (Feb., 1992) Nuclear energy;power plants Yankee Rowe nuclear plant Power plants;nuclear Energy;nuclear [g]North America;Feb., 1992: Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant Is Shut Down[08290] [g]United States;Feb., 1992: Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant Is Shut Down[08290] [c]Energy;Feb., 1992: Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant Is Shut Down[08290] [c]Environmental issues;Feb., 1992: Yankee Rowe Nuclear Plant Is Shut Down[08290] Selin, Ivan Pollard, Robert D.

Yankee Rowe is situated in the northwestern Massachusetts town of Rowe, about four miles south of the Vermont-Massachusetts border. It was the first nuclear reactor commissioned by the NRC’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission. Atomic Energy Commission, U.S. It was also the smallest reactor in use at the time, producing some 175 megawatts of power, or about 1 percent of the power fed into the Massachusetts grid. Yankee Rowe had a reasonably good safety record, with shutdowns averaging one per year. Most of the shutdowns were for the purpose of routine maintenance and refueling. The plant was operated by Yankee Atomic Electric Company, Yankee Atomic Electric Company which was owned by a consortium of ten Massachusetts power companies. Electricity industry officials hoped to use Yankee Rowe as a test case to demonstrate that nuclear plants could operate safely for sixty years.

When the difficulties that led to the closing began, Yankee Atomic was preparing to submit a request to the NRC for a twenty-year renewal of its original forty-year operating license, which would expire in the year 2000. As the company was making its preparations, a group of engineers and safety specialists from the Union of Concerned Scientists Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) were analyzing government documents, including periodic reports by Yankee Atomic to the NRC. These reports showed that the steel reactor vessel (a cylinder thirty-three feet high with a diameter of ten feet and eight-inch walls) and, in particular, the copper-containing weld at its waist were probably beyond the level of radiation-induced brittleness at which NRC regulations required intensive study of the situation. In June, 1991, the UCS filed a petition with the NRC, asking that the plant be shut down immediately and that the necessary tests be conducted. The commission turned down the petition and announced that the tests would be conducted in April, 1992, when the plant was scheduled for refueling.

The UCS’s concerns stemmed from the fact that the reactor at Yankee Rowe was of the pressurized-water design that normally operates at about 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Under emergency circumstances, the vessel is flooded with cold water (under 100 degrees) while full pressure is maintained to prevent boiling at the fuel-rod bundles. This thermal shock, together with the continued pressure, could cause a very brittle vessel to crack like a hot drinking glass when cold water is poured into it. This cracking would have disastrous effects in Yankee Rowe, because although the plant had the usual double-system safety design external to the reactor, there was no backup containment for the vessel itself. A rupture would mean unmanageable loss of coolant, overheating of the fuel elements, and meltdown.

At the time that the NRC turned down the UCS’s petition, it was also at work developing rules for relicensing, which Yankee Atomic’s impending application made necessary. The outgoing chairman of the NRC, Kenneth Carr, Carr, Kenneth was called “an advocate for the industry” by Peter Kostmayer, Kostmayer, Peter chairman of the Interior Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the U.S. House of Representatives. Carr insisted on adoption of broad relicensing rules rather than specific rules because he wanted the rule-making task completed before his five-year term expired. Relicensing rules must address many complex questions, not simply questions related to aging equipment, such as whether tighter standards established for later plants should be applied to the old plants in relicensing or whether those standards should be waived. Broad relicensing rules threatened to oversimplify the relicensing issue.

Carr was replaced as NRC chair by Ivan Selin on July 1, 1991. Selin immediately displayed a skeptical view of both the relicensing rules and Yankee Rowe. He persuaded the commission to do a thorough job of rewriting the rules before their final adoption. He toured the Yankee Rowe plant with various members of Congress and with UCS nuclear safety engineer Robert D. Pollard, and he announced that Yankee Rowe was “the most current issue we have.” In August, the NRC reaffirmed its June decision to allow the plant to remain in operation but continued to study the matter, asking for further information from Rowe.

In October, the NRC, citing a computer-modeling study done by its staff that cast doubt on the plant’s safety beyond those expressed in the earlier UCS petition, prepared to notify Yankee Atomic that shutdown would be required. The company forestalled formal action by shutting down voluntarily, maintaining that it expected the plant to be back online as soon as the NRC could be convinced that the reactor was indeed safe. In the meantime, Yankee Atomic dropped its relicensing efforts, because engineering time had been monopolized by concerns with safety matters.

By the end of October, Yankee Atomic announced that it would not try to reopen the plant early but would wait until the scheduled inspection in March. Over the next few months, the company obtained bids for the requisite safety testing and found the $23 million estimate for repairs too high. Company officials announced at the end of February, 1992, that the plant would close permanently and would be decommissioned.

Significance

The closing of the Yankee Rowe plant was both encouraging and educational. The performance of the NRC under the leadership of Selin was exemplary during the process of the plant’s closure, and the methods and costs of closing nuclear power plants were more clearly understood after the experience at Yankee Rowe.

Selin gave credit to citizen groups for urging his commission to act cautiously in the case of the Yankee Rowe plant. He even suggested that it might be appropriate for such groups to receive public funding. Selin, holder of a Yale University Ph.D. in electrical engineering who possessed the technical background that his two predecessors had lacked, was acutely aware of the design and safety problems in the nuclear power industry. He noted at the outset of his tenure at the NRC that, with its 111 reactors of eighty different designs, the industry was difficult to manage and difficult to regulate. The goals of his five-year term involved the establishment of a small number of standardized designs and sound procedures for relicensing old plants as well as an effort to make the licensing of new plants quicker and more efficient.

Under Selin’s leadership, the NRC more quickly identified problem nuclear plants, although, as Pollard pointed out in a 1993 article in the UCS’s quarterly, Nucleus, the NRC was still slow to demand corrections. In general, however, the experience of Yankee Rowe and the 1993 closing of the Trojan nuclear plant in Oregon showed that the NRC had become more responsive to problems.

Yankee Rowe’s closing set in motion the decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear plants that were no longer operable. The matter of permanent shutdown is very complex and has economic, technological, and political repercussions.

In 1993, Yankee Atomic awarded a contract for decommissioning of the Rowe plant to the engineering firm of Stone and Webster. The firm’s bid was a staggering $247 million, and no detailed plans accompanied the bid. One year later, the estimate was increased to $370 million. Yankee Atomic had only about one-fifth of this amount set aside for closing costs in its original planning for decommission. The early closing of the plant was expected to save some $116 million in expenses, but even combined, these figures totaled a little more than one-half of the increased estimate. Additional monies were expected to be garnered by electricity rate increases on future sales by members of the consortium that owned Yankee Atomic. A grim irony is at work in these cost figures. Yankee Rowe cost only $39 million to construct in 1962. Even allowing for massive inflation in its thirty-year lifetime, shutdown costs exceeded start-up costs, and consumers ultimately paid the difference.

The technological problems that had to be solved in the dismantling of the Yankee Rowe power plant were not insurmountable, but they were problems that no electric power company had ever had to address before. The problems had to do principally with the induced radioactivity in many of the core components of the plant. The classic demolition method of controlled explosion followed by bulldozer clearing cannot be employed in such a situation. Even standard practices such as using cutting torches to reduce large metal components to the size of pieces that fit on a truck could be used only under rigorously controlled conditions. The volatile nature of the materials that required dismantling meant that the decommissioning cost estimates were staggering.

The last, and possibly the greatest, difficulty in the closing and razing of Yankee Rowe was deciding what to do with all the radioactive waste materials, both fuel and components, from the dismantling operation. Waste;nuclear Nuclear waste;disposal At the time of shutdown, it was arranged that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would dispose of the low-level radioactive waste and the federal government would handle the high-level waste, principally fuel rods. Neither agreement was fulfilled, however. Officials in Massachusetts could not agree on a site for low-level waste, and all the materials were stored at the plant in Rowe. Most of the induced radioactivity in the low-level wastes had a relatively short half-life, so it could be left to cool down and could then be disposed of as ordinary toxic or hazardous waste. Nevertheless, the time span involved in the cool-down period would be a matter of decades.

After many efforts to solve the problem of where to dispose of the radioactive wastes from Yankee Rowe, it was decided to transfer them from wet to dry cask storage. This was completed by June, 2003, allowing for the structural demolition of the plant two years later, as further grading of the former plant site continued with a view to restoration of the land. Storage of the wastes at the site will continue under Nuclear Regulatory Commission license arrangements until the U.S. Department of Energy transfers the wastes to a suitable final location at some unspecified future date. Nuclear energy;power plants Yankee Rowe nuclear plant Power plants;nuclear Energy;nuclear

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beauchamp, Marc. “Caution: This Corpse Is Radioactive.” Forbes, March 7, 1988, 117-119. Brief but very informative article discusses the technological and financial difficulties of decommissioning and closing nuclear plants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breen, Bill, and Ethan Seidman. “Dismantling Nuclear Power Plants.” Garbage: The Practical Journal for the Environment 4, no. 2 (1992): 40-47. Discusses the waste-disposal problem in detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kotval, Zenia, and John Robert Mullin. “The Closing of the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Plant: The Impact on a New England Community.” Journal of the American Planning Association 63, no. 4 (1997): 454-468. Focuses on the societal effects of nuclear plant closure on the surrounding communities and argues that these effects are rarely considered when closure decisions are made.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pollard, Robert D. “See No Evil.” Nucleus: The Magazine of the Union of Concerned Scientists 15 (Winter, 1993/1994): 1-3, 12. One of the principals in the Yankee Rowe case presents a general discussion of NRC safety regulations and their enforcement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pollock, Cynthia. Decommissioning: Nuclear Power’s Missing Link. Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, 1986. Provides thorough discussion of all aspects of nuclear power plant closure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Radioactive Headache.” The Futurist 20 (March/April, 1986): 47-48. Presents a useful summary of the material explored at more length in Pollock’s book, cited above.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramsey, Charles B., and Mohammad Modarres. Commercial Nuclear Power: Assuring Safety for the Future. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. Comprehensive volume covers all aspects of nuclear power production and takes a positive view of the potential such production has for meeting the world’s energy needs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shulman, Seth. “Nuclear Reactors: The High Cost of Early Retirement.” Technology Review, January 20, 1994, 20-21. Focuses on the closed Trojan reactor in Oregon, giving a compact picture of the costs of its closing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weissman, Robert. “A Nuclear Tombstone.” Multinational Monitor 13 (April, 1992): 7-8. Briefly describes Yankee Rowe’s closing and discusses the safety aspects of its continuing operations.

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