Despite low rating, NRC says plant operated safely in 2014

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Published under Fair Use
By Frank Mand

March 21. 2015 2:00PM

Led by Region 1 Administrator Dan Dorman, center, the NRC holds its annual public review of the Pilgrim nuclear plant's performance. Wicked Local photo/Frank Mand

Led by Region 1 Administrator Dan Dorman, center, the NRC holds its annual public review of the Pilgrim nuclear plant’s performance.
Wicked Local photo/Frank Mand

PLYMOUTH – America’s Hometown is more vocal about its nuclear power plant than most host communities. The plant has its issues, but, overall, it operated safely in 2014, and there just isn’t a good reason why Pilgrim can’t seem to keep the lights on when the winter winds blow.

That’s a simplified summary of what Dan Dorman, the NRC’s administrator for Region I, said Tuesday during an unexpected one-on-one interview. The NRC offered a “media availability” session the day before its annual public meeting on its assessment of the plant’s performance; the only newspaper to attend the session was the Old Colony Memorial.

When asked to clarify Pilgrim’s performance status in the eyes of the NRC and to detail the events that led to its present degraded status, Dorman explained that in the first and third quarters of 2013 Pilgrim experienced several scrams (emergency shutdowns), resulting in two performance indicators (PI) being classified as “white.”

Inspection findings and performance indicators are classified by color, ranging from green, for issues of very low safety or security significance, through white, yellow and then red, indicating high safety or security significance.

The combined white findings in 2013 pushed Pilgrim’s overall plant performance rating into what the NRC calls the “degraded cornerstone” column of its performance matrix, a status that requires the plant receive a greater level of scrutiny by the NRC, including additional inspections (beyond those required on a normal basis).

Technically, even if there were no further white, yellow or red performance indicators, the plant could still remain in a degraded status for an extended period. But there are incentives, Dorman explained, that urge plants to satisfy the NRC’s concerns.

The increased inspections, for example, come with a price tag. A plant’s owners have to pay NRC inspectors at a rate of $279 per hour (the 2014 rate), and they usually have to bring in additional staff, from inside and outside the company, to address NRC concerns.

In 2014, the NRC spent more than 6,500 hours inspecting Pilgrim, which works out to an estimated cost of $1.8 million. And that’s on top of other fees paid to consultants, plus the average $5 million fee per reactor that plant owners pay the regulator.

Dorman said there is also another inherent incentive for a plant to move as quickly as possible to satisfy the NRC’s concerns.

“As long as they are sitting in column three, if something else happens they would move further to the right in the action matrix and get even more criticism and attention. And no one wants that publicity,” he said.

Dorman also noted that residents living near Pilgrim are some of the most “engaged” in the country.

“I would definitely say that most communities are more comfortable with their plants than Pilgrim’s.”

To get out of the performance doghouse, Pilgrim had to address and correct the underlying issues identified by the NRC and then, when it was ready, request a final inspection to prove it had done so.

“They say, ‘we’re ready,’” Dorman explained. “They indicate they understand those events, that they have taken corrective actions or corrective actions are planned and scheduled. They say, ‘we are ready for you to come and validate that.’”

That’s how 2014 ended at Pilgrim, with an invitation to the NRC to review the actions taken since 2013.

If the plant had passed that final review, it would have been moved out of the “degraded cornerstone” column, the number of inspections would have returned to normal, and Entergy could have argued that 2014 was, from its perspective, a very good year.

But that didn’t happen.

“Although the company’s problem identification, root cause evaluation and corrective action plans were generally adequate,” an NRC letter informed plant officials in December, “deficiencies still existed in the implementation of corrective action plans, as well as in understanding of the issues’ causes.”

“The performance indicators went back to green in 2014,” Dorman explained Tuesday, “but we wouldn’t return a licensee (Entergy) to a lesser category until we had completed our review of their corrective actions.”

When it had completed its review, the NRC inspection team concluded Pilgrim had not met its objectives.

“As a result,” the NRC said, “per agency protocols, the NRC assigned two new parallel white inspection findings.

Pilgrim will continue to receive more scrutiny and additional inspections until the NRC is satisfied its concerns have been met. And that will continue until the plant decides it has met the objectives and both understands and has corrected the root causes and invites the NRC back for another assessment.

Asked specifically where Pilgrim failed to meet its objectives, Dorman referred to the cover letter accompanying “Inspection Procedure 95002,” which notes a lack of “depth and rigor” in the plant’s evaluation of the root causes of the 2013 scrams.

“There were a couple of issues as to the root causes, why the trips happened in the first place,” Dorman said. “The licensee had not dug down deep enough.”

In terms of rigor, the NRC inspectors discovered that Pilgrim had failed to follow through in at least one important area.

When the NRC inspectors visited in December, Dorman explained, they found some of the switchyard insulators that had contributed to the 2013 scams. Entergy had planned to send these out for testing, to assess the cause of the failure, but that had not yet been done.

Asked why a company whose business it is to produce electricity can’t seem to keep the power on during winter storms, Dorman first underlined the NRC’s belief that these power outages were not a safety concern, then offered a blunt assessment.

“Loss of outside power (LOOP) is not that rare of an event, though in Pilgrim’s case they have had them more frequently in the last couple of years,” Dorman said. “But we refer to the offsite power as the non-safety source of electrical power. The onsite diesel power generators are the safety source of power.”

Pilgrim has two massive, freight train-size, diesel generators, each of which require 30,000 gallons of fuel to operate for a week. Those are the backups that matter, Dorman said.

“It’s inherent in the design of the plant to withstand the occasional loss of offsite power,” he added. “But, that said, this is a power company. They exist to make electricity. When they lose the switchyard they aren’t making electricity. It’s certainly in their interest to resolve the issue.”

But why has the plant repeatedly lost power? Are the events connected?

“Pilgrim had a long history of problems in the switchyard back in the 1980s and early ’90s,” Dorman said, “and then went through a long period where they didn’t have those problems. Then, suddenly, in 2013 there were several trips, and now the outage during winter storm Juno this winter.

“There is a reasonable nexus (link) between the issues that occurred in 2013,” Dorman added, “and particularly with Nemo and Juno, and it was the conclusion of the inspectors that they had not adequately corrected issues, that there is a connection.”

So the plant will remain in the NRC doghouse, under greater scrutiny than normal, until Pilgrim says it is ready for another targeted inspection.

But, overall, Dorman said, the plant’s performance in 2014 was acceptable.

“They operated safely in 2014,” Dorman noted. “There were no greater than green findings or performance indicators during 2014.”

While Pilgrim’s performance in 2013 and its status today places it in the bottom tier of American nuclear power plants, the “degraded cornerstone” status is defined as “acceptable performance with degraded margins,” Dorman said.

Region 1, which Dorman covers, includes 11 eastern states and the District of Columbia.

Original article at Wicked Local Plymouth
Follow Frank Mand on Twitter @frankmandOCM.

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One Response to Despite low rating, NRC says plant operated safely in 2014

  1. David Agnew says:

    Presently, of the 4 reactors in the NRC’s worst-run reactor ‘doghouse’, 3 are operated by Entergy (they operate 11 in total). Although Pilgrim is not in the very worst column, this is not a good sign.