Thursday, April 7, 2011

Nuclear Follies

Some excerpts from "Nuclear Follies," a February 11, 1985, cover story in Forbes magazine by one of its executive editors, James Cook—my father.

I believe it bears revisiting, especially as officials argue about whether the kind of nuclear calamity that Japan is now enduring could possibly happen here. I haven't checked, but I suspect many of the plants he mentions are still in operation.

Bear in mind, as you read what follows, that the article was actually lamenting the fact that, for the moment, the U.S. nuclear power program was at an end. "Most important of all," it asked, "why did the U.S. fail where the French, Germans, and Japanese succeeded?"

I've typed in these excerpts (apologies for any typos) because at first glance it doesn't appear to me that this exhaustively researched piece is available online. The sections that shocked me the most are highlighted in red.
The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale. The utility industry has already invested $125 billion in nuclear power, with an additional $140 billion to come before the decade is out, and only the blind, or the biased, can now think that the money has been well spent. It is a defeat for the U.S. consumer and for the competitiveness of U.S. industry, for the utilities that undertook the program and for the private enterprise system that made it possible. Without even recognizing the risks, the U.S. electric power industry undertook a commitment bigger than the space program ($100 billion) or the Vietnam War ($111 billion) and, in little more than a decade, transformed what elsewhere int he world is a low-cost, reliable, environmentally impeccable form of energy into a power source that is not only high in cost and unreliable, but perhaps not even safe.
Many utilities were totally unprepared for projects requiring management skills of such a high order. The NRC shut down Marble Hill and South Texas for over a year because construction managers there had problems pouring concrete correctly. Contractors had difficulties welding metal almost everywhere—Marble Hill, Zimmer, Shoreham, Clinton, Byron, Limerick, Nine Mile Point, take your pick. They couldn't always install electrical equipment properly, either, or follow the specifications for steel. At Commonwealth Edison's Byron plant, the NRC chewed out the contractors who did the electrical, piping and duct work, and even banned one from supplying safety-related components to the industry. At Nine Mile Point, rejection rates in final welding and mechanical aspects for poor workmanship ran around 38%. Poor craftsmanship, an NRC study concluded, "was an effect, not the cause. The principal underlying cause...was found to be poor utility and project management."
"We developed the whole nuclear technology in the U.S.," laments New York consulting engineer Gerard C. Gambs, "and now the nuclear program is falling apart. Not on nuclear technology. It's falling apart on conventional construction, which I think is absolutely incredible." (90)

It might be noted, in fairly assessing the dismal record, that Brown & Root had never built a nuclear plant on its own before. Neither had Kaiser. But what is to be said for Stone & Webster, which took credit for some of the most successful projects in the Sixties and early Seventies, yet went on to preside over three of the most costly and troubled plants still under construction—Lilco's Shoreham, NM's Nine Mile Point and Dusquesne Light's Beaver Valley?

The bungling the industry was capable of boggles the mind. In the Zimmer control room, according to a study for the Ohio PUC, the control panel would catch fire when the alarm nodule lights went on close together, so that in an emergency the panel would have knocked itself out and the staff would have been unable to control the plant. But nobody worried about that. Many of the lights had burned out, and the stuff had unplugged others to decrease the risk of fire.
The ineptitude had no pattern, and virtually anything could go wrong, and did. How could an experienced contractor like Bechtel have prepared the Midland plant site so poorly that the diesel generator building began settling excessively? How could Bechtel have installed a reactor backwards at San Onofre? How could Brown & Root have got the reactor supports 45 degrees out of whack at Comanche Peak? How could experienced operators pour defective concrete at Marble Hill and the South Texas project? How could the NRC itself approve designs for the Mark II reactor when what Grand Gulf was building was a Mark III? How could the design control have been so lax that PG&E used the wrong drawings in calculating seismic responds for the steel in the Diablo Canyon containment building?

The NRC has a partial answer. "In some cases," an NRC study concluded, "no one was managing the project, the project had inertia, but no guidance and direction." The NRC's diagnosis may be self serving, but an Office of Technology Assessment study last spring came o the same conclusion: "Inadequate management has been one of the major causes of construction cost overruns and erratic operation." (92)

Most disheartening of all, perhaps, are the instances of mendacity and worse in US. nuclear projects. A number of major contractors allegedly rigged bids at Washington Nuclear, Diablo Canyon and Marble Hill projects, and some have gone to jail for it. Quality control inspectors have been intimidated, documents have been forged, operator training records have been falsified. Metropolitan Edison pleaded guilty to using faulty test procedures at TMI [Three Mile Island]. Wolf Creek even managed to document as inspected a weld that didn't exist.

One conclusion seems inescapable: Any utility that failed to involve itself directly in every aspect of the project was likely to end up with a mismanaged project. And as Lilco and PS made clear, even that may not be enough. Look at the nuclear table on page 85: On five of the eight projects likely to come in for less than $2,000 per kilowatt, the utilities handled their own engineering and construction. So it's a catch 22 dilemma. Lacking knowhow, utilities hired experts to manage nuclear projects. But the experts themselves all too often bungled the job.
Apologists argue that most of the nuclear industry's troubles were simply beyond the industry's control. Can't keep your costs under control? Can't meet your construction schedules? Blame the NRC, blame the antinuclear forces, blame inflation, blame interest costs. Don't blame the fact that you haven't the slightest idea of how to control costs or schedule production. "'Regulatory problems' is kind of catchall for all the cost overruns," says one consultant who understandably wishes to to be named. "They made mistakes and could have done a better job. The construction mentality is to build the plant and don't let the paperwork slow you up."

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