Experts okay restart of worrisome Belgian nuclear plants

Jan 06, 2013
A nuclear plant in Doel, north of Antwerp, Belgium, is pictured on August 9, 2012. Scientific experts have greenlighted the restart of two Belgian nuclear power plants despite signs of micro-cracks in reactor vessels, the daily Le Soir said Saturday.

Scientific experts have greenlighted the restart of two Belgian nuclear power plants despite signs of micro-cracks in reactor vessels, the daily Le Soir said Saturday.

No independent confirmation was immediately available from Belgium's nuclear safety authority, AFCN.

Le Soir, which did not identify its sources, said " on material resistance who were asked for their opinion on the fate of the Tihange 2 and Doel 3 vessels have handed in a positive report."

AFCN had said it would hand the government a report on whether to restart the reactors in mid-January. It has already received a positive report from the country's Electrabel power utility.

Le Soir said the experts had however asked for "more intensive" checks.

Many "potential cracks" were found during inspections early last year at the base of the vessel at Doel 3, near the northern city of Antwerp, which was closed in June, as well as at Tihange 2, near the southern city of Liege.

It was halted in August for investigation after the problems at Doel came to light.

The reactor vessels, housing the nuclear core, were built in the 1970s by the Dutch firm Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij (RDM), which has since ceased business.

RDM equipped some 20 nuclear plants, half of them in Europe.

Earlier this year, the Belgian nuclear regulator said the problems in the Doel 3 reactor likely dated back to its construction and while there was little risk for the present, there was "a malaise given the large number" of defects.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan has increased sensitivity over the safety of nuclear energy, with Germany deciding to phase out its plants.

The EU counts 147 reactors in 14 countries, with more than a third of the total in France which depends almost entirely on nuclear generators for electricity.

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3 / 5 (2) Jan 06, 2013
If "Experts" are confident, then who is worried?

It's bad enough when experts try to "teach birds to fly", it's worse when done by inexpert journos.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2013
All reactor designs suffer from radiation embrittlement to some degree. Some more than others, and the eventual effect is crack formation in the reactor vessel. You're supposed to open up the reactor and heat the walls - anneal the metal - to release the tensions and soften the steel before it starts to crack. Annealing also closes the smallest cracks.

Now, if the cracks are there because the original contractor fudged it, and not because of radiation embrittlement, then it likely won't affect the normal running of the reactor as it hasn't done so far. It just calls for safety evaluation to see what happens when the abnormal happens, and whether or not the flaw should be fixed, or the reactor decommissioned as unsafe in an emergency.
not rated yet Jan 06, 2013
To be more precise though, since the reactor vessel isn't made in one piece but welded from several at the construction site, the weakest points where the radiation embrittlement causes the most problems are the material discontinuities, or the weld seams. The bulk of the material doesn't mind very much since it doesn't have so many internal tensions that would cause crack formation.

Depending on how the manufacturer had sectioned the reactor vessel, the welds may be placed in the path of a strong neutron flux which causes the embrittlement, and therefore some reactors are more susceptible to embrittlement than others, and have to be regularily annealed.
not rated yet Jan 06, 2013
The bulk of the material doesn't mind very much since it doesn't have so many internal tensions that would cause crack formation.

Annealing my may not be a factor nor more then a short term fix. I am pretty sure that the people who run the reactor have thought of these ideas. I suspect that the heating in the reactor itself is very uneven so the benefit of annealing would be very short term, plus sustained annealing could cause surface brittleness in the longer term. Remember these things are supposed to last decades in hostile environments. You live and learn to do it better next time. These things were build in the 70s and probably designed in the 60s. There weren't dumb but they had less experience. No I don't have a solution except an eventual shutdown.

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