Pipe Cracking Problem May Date Back 30 Years, Energy Official Says
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Problems with cracks in the Savannah River nuclear material production plant’s cooling system may date back 30 years to when the pipes were installed, a federal energy official said Tuesday.
The pipes may have been cracked when many of them were installed during the 1950s, or the pipes may have been damaged during the installation process or during plant operations, Richard Starostecki, the Energy Department’s deputy assistant secretary for safety, health and quality assurance, told The Associated Press.
All three Savannah River reactors have been shut down since summer for safety upgrades and maintenance. They are the nation’s only source of tritium, a radioactive gas used to boost the power of nuclear weapons.
Official at the Du Pont Co., operators of the plant, have said they hope to have at least one of the reactors operating by late spring or summer. The 300- square-mile facility is near Aiken, S.C.
The Energy Department learned Dec. 8 of cracks in a main cooling line that had been found months earlier by engineers for Du Pont. The cracks were found in a section of pipe removed last year.
Another crack was found Friday in the auxiliary cooling line of another Savannah River reactor.
Pipes in the plant’s cooling systems are periodically replaced as needed following inspections, Starostecki said.
Du Pont officials were quoted in Wednesday’s editions of the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle as saying the defective material wasn’t pipe, but components such as cast stainless steel nozzles or parts of valves used to join cooling pipe to the reactor vessel.
Starostecki was quoted by the Georgia newspaper as saying that an internal Du Pont memo dated April 19 indicated that stainless steel replacement pipe was found to contain cracks, which Du Pont employees tried to mend themselves.
Dr. Joseph Spencer, Du Pont program manager for reactor technology and scientific computations, told the newspaper, ″Yes, there were cracks (in plant components) ... but they were carefully examined and repaired before being put in. There is no safety hazard to the reactor.″
Starostecki told the AP that he was forming a team of department and private industry experts to determine the cause of the cracks and whether they existed when the cooling pipes were installed.
″The cracks may not have been there when they were installed, but (the problem may be) the things that were done in the installation ... or water chemistry control,″ Starostecki said.
Another problem may have been Du Pont’s timing in notifying federal officials, Starostecki said, adding that the plant’s operators knew in March about the cracks that were reported to the Energy Department in December.
He said he did not know how soon the team would present its findings.