Nuclear power plants contain hundreds of kilometers of electrical cables including cables used for power, for instrumentation, and for control. It is essential that safety-related cable systems continue to perform following a design-basis event. Wholesale replacement of electrical cables in existing plants facing licensing period renewal may be both impractical and cost-prohibitive. It is therefore important to understand the long term aging of cable materials to have confidence that aged cables will perform when needed. It is equally important in support of cable aging management to develop methods to evaluate the health of installed cables and inform selective cable replacement decisions.
The most common insulation materials for electrical cables in nuclear power plants are cross-linked polyethylene and ethylene-propylene rubber. The mechanical properties of these materials degrade over time in the presence of environmental stresses including heat, gamma irradiation, and moisture. Mechanical degradation of cable insulation beyond a certain threshold is unacceptable because it can lead to insulation cracking, exposure of energized conductors, arcing and burning or loss of the ability of the cable system to function during a design-basis accident.
While thermal-, radiation-, and moisture-related degradation of polymer insulation materials has been extensively studied over the last few decades, questions remain regarding the long term performance of cable materials in nuclear plant-specific environments. Identified knowledge gaps include an understanding of the temperature-dependence of activation energies for thermal damage and an understanding of the synergistic effects of radiation and thermal stress on polymer degradation. Many of the outstanding questions in the aging behavior of cable materials relate to the necessity of predicting long-term field degradation using accelerated aging results from the laboratory. Materials degrade faster under more extreme conditions, but extension of behavior to long term degradation under more mild conditions, such as those experienced by most installed cables in nuclear power plants, is complicated by the fact that different degradation mechanisms may be involved in extreme and mild scenarios. The discrepancy in predicted results from short term, more extreme exposure and actual results from longer term, more mild exposures can be counter intuitive. For instance, due to the attenuation of oxidation penetration in material samples rapidly aged through exposure to high temperatures, the bulk of the samples may be artificially protected from thermal aging. In another example, simultaneous exposure of cable insulation material to heat and radiation may actually lead to less damage at higher temperatures than may be observed at lower temperatures. The Light Water Reactor Sustainability program of the United States (US) Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy is funding research to increase the predictive understanding of electrical cable material aging and degradation in existing nuclear power plants in support of continued safe operation of plants beyond their initial license periods. This research includes the evaluation and development of methods to assess installed cable condition.