`Going Critical’ South Texas Prepares for Nuclear Power BY LOUIS DUBOSE SOME MORNING in February, technicians at the South Texas Nuclear Plant in Matagorda County will begin the process by which the uranium pellets in the Unit I reactor are moved close enough together that they will begin to react Then, in the words of Glenn Walker, spokesman for Houston Lighting & Power, “we will let the plan hum for a couple of weeks before requesting a full power license.” If all goes as planned, Walker said, the plant will be generating electricity by late winter, or at the latest, early spring. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that could occur in late February or early March, one unit at the power plant, conceived in 1972 and then estimated to cost $1.2 billion dollars, will finally go on line. The STNP’s cost, much of which could be passed on to consumers, is most recently fixed at $5.7 billion dollars; many consumer advocates ‘warn that the real meltdown will occur in the rate base, once the Public Utility Commission grants the utility the right to pass along to consumers prudent construction costs. But there are some who insist that the plant is not ready for operation and that serious safety hazards exist in the pipes, joints, gauges, and structures that make up the huge sprawling reactors and generators. In Washington, lawyers for the Government the NRC complete an extensive review of some 400 alleged safety-related violations that GAP, a public policy law firm based in Washington, has made available. \(GAP files include 700 STNP allegations, 400 are GAP by whistleblowers whose identity has been withheld from the agency, range from serious “20 percent of the valves in the plant are installed backwards” to amusing “C.L. ,Williams insurance is openly being sold by employees at the plant site.” But the NRC considered the charges serious enough to establish a special tenperson team and conduct an on-site inspection at Bay City in mid-January. A report from the inspectors has not been issued but proceeding with final tests, certain that the plant will not be found unsafe. HL&P, according to Walker, considers all safety concerns resolved. In Walker’s words, it is time to “go critical,” that is, to begin the fusion process that will ultimately produce the steam to power the generators. “The allegations by John Corder, on all the safety items,” Walker said, “have been , looked over two or three times in the past year.” Walker describes John Corder as an angry man, a man with a vendetta against his former employer. Walker insists that the time has come for the South Texas Nuclear Concerns about safety continue to plague the state’s first nuke. Project to get on with the business of generating electricity. j OHN CORDER does not agree. For 27 years, Corder has worked for Bechtel, the contractor who came in behind Brown & Root after it became evident that the Texas-based contractor was in over its head on the South Texas Project. Until November of 1986, Corder was a Bechtel materials foreman, with 17 years experience in construction of nuclear plants five years at STNP. Corder had previously been responsible for quality control at 12 other Bechtel-built nuclear plants. For four years and seven months, Corder had worked “on the periphery” of the South Texas Project, supervising three separate crafts working to prepare materials used in plant construction. Then, in August of 1987, Corder was moved inside Unit I on special assignment. What he discovered there, in a plant described as almost ready to go on line, was to him very disturbing. Corder related his concerns about safety violations to his immediate supervisor, who referred him to the project leader, a man that Corder had known since Corder had been hired at the South Texas Nuclear Project. The project leader, Corder said, told him to go to the Safeteam, a quality control agency mandated by federal law on all nuclear project sites. Within a week, and before Corder could get to the Safeteam, he was dismissed. According to Corder, he was told that his dismissal was part of a routine reduction in force, a claim that Corder does not accept; others, he claims, with less seniority than him have kept their jobs. Corder drew up a bill of particulars, detailing items that he claims represent safety violations. He showed the Safeteam representative 132 separate safety-related items at the plant. His allegations include claims that: Pumps are installed under tanks so that pump valves are not accessible and maintenance is impossible. Instruments are installed in positions where they can not be read during operation. ‘Valves are installed on the wrong sides of pipes and are difficult to operate and maintain. Access to a critically important pump in the fuel handling building is blocked by pipes and electrical conduit. In many of the cells that contain radioactive piping, protective coatings or radiation barriers have been broken by bolting heavy materials to the floor, thus causing crevices where radioactive debris could accumulate and expose workers to radioactivity. Corder, and GAP attorneys with whom he is now working, were encouraged when told that Corder would be permitted to enter the plant with the NRC special inspection team to point out specific safety hazards. Yet on January 21, when Corder joined the team for a walk through inspection of the plant, officials at Houston Lighting & Power, the utility company managing the plant, denied Corder access to Unit I, the unit in which he had worked and where he had detailed specific hazards. Corder was allowed to enter Unit II to point out similar hazards. In Unit II, where he had not worked, Corder directed inspectors to improperly fastened electrical gear boxes. “Let’s go look at some of them,” Corder said he told the inspectors. “And there it was, the same problem as in Unit I.” The problem with the boxes, Corder contends, is that covers are not properly attached and this creates a possibility that dust can accumulate in the boxes. Dust in electrical gear boxes, which distribute power to various systems, can cause electrical arcs and fires in the boxes. While in Unit II, Corder was only allowed to point out one specific infraction. He claims that during the three hours in the plant, he directed the NRC inspection team to other violations: “While we were looking for the fastener [bolt] problems I pointed out a number of other violations,” Corder said. “But they weren’t interested and said 18 FEBRUARY 26, 1988
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