Palisades: Is it Safe?
February 15, 2012
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said problems at the Palisades plant do not pose an immediate safety threat, but show that the facility has underlying issues that need to be corrected. / STAN GREGG/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Palisades nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Michigan became one of the four worst-performing nuclear reactors in the U.S. — out of 104 — when federal regulators downgraded it Tuesday for the second time this year.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has finalized four safety violations against the plant since Jan. 3, and Palisades will now undergo extra safety inspections and more scrutiny to make sure managers find the root causes of problems and fix them.
The plant had five emergency shutdowns in 2011 because of human or equipment failures.
“The NRC has observed a decline at Palisades in the past year,” said Prema Chandrathil, spokeswoman for the NRC’s Chicago office. “We expect them to take action.”
The problems the NRC has found do not pose an immediate safety threat, but show that the facility has underlying issues that need to be corrected, she said.
Managers of Entergy Nuclear Operations, the company that bought Palisades from Consumers Energy in 2007, took the blame for the problems at an NRC hearing last month.
Entergy officials acknowledged that the plant has a poor safety culture, meaning its workers are not as risk-conscious as they should be.
The NRC puts plants into five performance categories. Most are in the best-performing top category, including, until recently, Palisades. As problems mount, a plant is downgraded a category. At each level, the NRC does more inspections.
Palisades has fallen from the top category to the third level of performance.
Only two other plants — the Perry Nuclear Power Plant’s Unit 1 generator near Cleveland and the Susquehannah Nuclear Power Plant’s Unit 1 generator in Berwick, Pa. — are in the same category. A fourth plant, Browns Ferry Unit I near Athens, Ala., is in the fourth category. A plant that hits the fifth, or bottom level, would be shut down.
The most significant violation at Palisades happened on Sept. 25. What began as an attempt to fix a burned-out light bulb on a door to an emergency airlock led to a serious incident that left the plant without half its electrical power.
A piece of equipment slipped while a worker was troubleshooting, causing an arc of electricity and a loss of power to some indicators in the panels that control the reactor. Signals went haywire, showing incorrect information, and the plant automatically shut down.
In taking part of the blame for that incident, plant manager Dave Hamilton said: “I apologize if I get emotional, but I could have killed somebody that weekend.”
Still, at the hearing last month, the company argued that the violations were less serious than the NRC claimed.
“At no time was the plant in an unsafe situation,” plant spokesman Mark Savage said Tuesday.
But in its letter to the plant Tuesday, the NRC said the agency looks at not only at what did happen, but what could have happened.
Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear group, said Palisades is risky to those who get drinking water from Lake Michigan, and it should be shut down. In addition to the September shutdown, the NRC has cited Palisades this year for other violations in 2010 and 2011:
• Oct. 23, 2010: A control room operator who was angry walked off his job without permission and without handing over his duties. The NRC issued a violation notice in late 2011. After mediation, the NRC, the company and the operator agreed to a series of steps that must be taken to prevent a repeat. Among them, the operator must write an article for an industry magazine discussing what he learned from the incident.
• May 10, 2011: A pump tripped after workers failed to follow correct maintenance procedures during an earlier outage and improperly greased a part. That failure led to one violation that downgraded Palisades one level on Jan. 3. The violation was of low to moderate significance.
• Aug. 9, 2011: A key water pump failed and the NRC determined the company was guilty of two violations because it had a similar pump failure in 2009, but didn’t figure out the root cause of that failure. Instead, the problem was repeated two years later. A coupling failed because of stress cracking and corrosion that the company should have found and fixed, the NRC said.
Chandrathil said the plant will remain downgraded for at least the first nine months of this year. Its status after that depends on the outcome of NRC inspections and any further violations.
Regulators will evaluate the effectiveness of the corrections Entergy makes before deciding whether to upgrade the plant’s status.
“We accept the violations,” said Savage, Entergy’s spokesman. He said the company had cooperated fully with the NRC and will continue to do so.
Contact Tina Lam: 313-222-6421 or firstname.lastname@example.org