Entergy Corporation

Former workers at the Palisades nuclear plant are accusing management of lying to regulators about attempts to fix a work environment where managers put a chill on critical feedback from employees. 

Thursday night’s meeting to review Palisades' performance last year started out pretty typically.

Regulators noted a survey that found security officers fear retaliation if they raise certain concerns.

Company officials got a chance to respond. Otto Gustafson, Director of Regulatory and Performance Improvement at Palisades, said management is taking the concerns very seriously and outlined a plan to correct the problem. 

But then Chris Malich stepped to the microphone during the public comment portion of the meeting and called Gustafson and other officials out.

“I’ve seen it over and over,” Malich told regulators, “They’ve said things are going to change, things are going to change, and they stay the same.”

Palisades Nuclear Power Plant.
Entergy Corporation

People will get two opportunities this week to hear how the Palisades nuclear plant is doing. Palisades was recently listed as one of the worst-performing plants in the country.

Regulators have raised the plant's official safety rating, but they say the safety culture among security staff still needs to improve.

The Palisades Nuclear Plant sits on the shores of Lake Michigan in southwest Michigan.

COVERT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - Operators of southwestern Michigan's Palisades Nuclear Power Plant say it's now offline for refueling and maintenance.

New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. says operators took the plant out of service at 11 a.m. EST Sunday. It's located on the shore of lake Michigan in Van Buren County's Covert Township, about 55 miles southwest of Grand Rapids.

Plant spokeswoman Lindsay Rose says workers will replace 64 fuel assemblies in the reactor as well doing maintenance, tests and inspections.

The SIRWT tank on top of Palisades Nuclear Power Plant
Mark Savage / Entergy

Federal nuclear regulators say it’ll be several weeks before they can determine if Entergy, the company that owns the Palisades Nuclear Plant, violated any regulations during an incident in May when 80 gallons of slightly radioactive water leaked into Lake Michigan.

Related: Read this for a brief summary of all the problems at Palisades

The leak happened in May. Regulators say there was no threat to public safety, and the leak is now fixed.

When workers fixed the leaky tank they discovered the sand bed that was supposed to be supporting the tank was never installed. Palisades was built in 1968.

“If the causes (of there being no sand bed) were so long ago and it’s not indicative of recent performance then it’s assessed a little bit differently,” Jack Giessner said during a public forum held online Tuesday afternoon. Giessner is branch chief at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“It still may have some follow up needed but in general, it’s not like we’re going to try to interview people from 1968,” Giessner said.

COVERT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - Operators have restarted the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in southwestern Michigan after finishing repairs to a water tank that leaked slightly radioactive water into Lake Michigan.

New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. idled the plant May 5 after operators found a tank leaking faster than regulations allow. Company spokeswoman Lindsay Rose says it returned to service about 2:10 p.m. Monday.

The plant is in Van Buren County's Covert Township, about 80 miles east-northeast of Chicago,

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Even though Palisades is temporarily shut down, the nuclear power plant last night held a public open house it had scheduled more than a month ago.

In a small conference center in South Haven Tuesday night, anti-nuclear activists mingled with federal nuclear regulators, residents, and plant workers. Palisades Site Vice President Tony Vitale says that's a good thing. He says the open house is designed for people in the community to come talk to some of the plant workers firsthand.

“We’re not hiding anything. We want to run, and will run, and I will demand we run a transparent operation,” Vitale said.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Crews are still trying to figure out exactly what caused an unplanned release of slightly radioactive water from the Palisades Nuclear Plant last week. They have discovered a new crack in a water tank that’s been leaking on and off for at least two years.

The plant was shut down a little over a week ago because of the leak.

“The risk to the plant safety was very small. There really was no increased risk,” Palisades Chief Operating Officer Tim Mitchell told reporters Monday afternoon.  

Congressman Fred Upton
Republican Conference / Creative Commons

A powerful voice in Washington is demanding a permanent fix to the leaky water tank at the Palisades Nuclear Plant.

Congressman Fred Upton says he’s “outraged” by the unplanned release of slightly radioactive water into Lake Michigan over the weekend. Regulators say there is no risk to public safety.

Upton chairs the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over domestic nuclear regulatory activities.

The plant is in Congressman Upton’s district. Entergy, the company that owns the plant, was one of the top contributors to his election campaign last year.

Upton is demanding accountability and a permanent fix to the tank, which has leaked on and off for at least two years.

In a written statement, Upton says he plans to personally visit the site with a Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner.

“It is my understanding that the water tank will be emptied by the end of the week with the hope that the cause of the leak can be identified shortly thereafter.  Every option must be on the table – including a full replacement of the tank – to ensure that the continuing leak will not occur again,” Upton said.

Requests for an interview were not immediately returned.

New documents show Entergy had asked regulators for an alternative fix for the leaky tank on April 25th. Those documents assumed the leaks had stabilized.

“The current leak rate is stable without an increasing trend which suggests that the current through wall flaws have self-relieved the initiating stresses, are not growing, and remain well below the calculated allowable flaw length.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is investigating why the leak rate went from one gallon per day late last week to 90 gallons a day in one 24-hour period.

In the documents, Entergy requests an alternative fix for the tank “that would add a fiberglass-reinforced vinyl ester liner to the tank bottom and to a portion of the tank wall in lieu of identifying the location of the thru-wallleak(s) and performing code compliant repairs.”

Mark Savage / Entergy

Update 4:14 p.m.

“The most important thing to understand regarding this shutdown is the health and safety of our employees and the public has never been impacted by this issue,” said Terry Young, Vice President of Nuclear Communications for Entergy.

He confirms the unplanned release of slightly radioactive water into Lake Michigan, but couldn’t say exactly how much.

“It’s really impossible to tell at this juncture what the length of this shutdown will be because we haven’t yet had a chance to identify what the issue is that we’re going to need to fix,” Young said.

This will be the third attempt to fix the leaky tank within the last year and a half.

“We have gone through pretty exhaustive measures on a couple of occasions to bring the plant offline and do just extensive testing and repairs and we’ll take a look at what’s causing the leak this time,” Young said.

I asked if it would make more sense to replace the tank instead.

“I really don’t know any background information on that in terms of what that would cost, I honestly couldn’t comment on that,” Young said.

Young notes the plant has had “a lot of success” at Palisades in the year and a half in “significantly improving performance.” The NRC recently upgraded the plant's safety rating after a series of problems in 2011 left it with one of the worst safety performance ratings in the country.

Last month Site Vice President Tony Vitale noted that a number of issues “have required repairs to be done with the plant offline and that’s unacceptable.” He says they’re reviewing their procedures to see if there’s something they should change.

“We’re diving into our programs and finding out why these issues are finding us instead of us finding them,” Vitale said in April.

“It is unfortunate that this is a recurrent issue that we are dealing with here,” Young said, “but our resolve is strong to fix this issue once and for all.”

Updated 1:11 p.m.

Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimate 79 gallons of "slightly" radioactive water drained into Lake Michigan on Saturday.

NRC Spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng says the agency doesn’t know exactly how radioactive the water was, but based on general knowledge of where the water came from, there is no risk to public safety.

“The unplanned release of this radioactive water is not something you want to have happen,” Mitlyng added.

The water came from a large water tank on the roof of the Palisades plant’s control room. It holds 300,000 gallons of water in case of emergencies or a planned refueling outage.

The plant is located in Covert Township, about 70 miles southwest of Grand Rapids.

COVERT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - Operators of the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in southwestern Michigan say they removed it from service because of a water leak.

The plant operators say they took the plant off line Sunday morning for inspections and repairs to the safety injection/refueling water tank. They say there is no risk to the public.

The plant is along Lake Michigan's shoreline in Van Buren County's Covert Township, about 80 miles east-northeast of Chicago.

Union of Concerned Scientists

The director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists is in Michigan to talk about the Palisades nuclear power plant.

David Lochbaum is critical of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in his latest report on nuclear safety released in March.

Lochbaum says the NRC should have fined Entergy, the company that owns Palisades, over a water leak last summer.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Entergy Corporation, the company that owns the Palisades nuclear power plant, says the plant is on the “road to recovery” after a series of safety problems.

Federal regulators recently upgraded the plant’s safety rating from one of the worst in the country after it passed a major inspection last fall.

Palisades Vice President Tony Vitale outlined the steps he and his staff took last year to improve human performance at the plant, one of the main reasons for the safety rating downgrade.

He says a recent, independent study of the safety culture shows the plan is paying off.

Mark Savage / Entergy Corporation

This week Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner William Magwood came to South Haven to tour the Palisades nuclear power plant in nearby Covert Township.

Magwood did not respond to requests to comment on how his tour went or why he chose to come.

He’s the second commissioner to visit the plant in less than a year. NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng says that many high-level visits in such a short time is “not necessarily” uncommon.

“You can draw your own conclusions about that because I cannot do that for you,”Mitlyng said.

Kevin Kamps is with the anti-nuclear watchdog group Beyond Nuclear. Unlike the media, he and several others got a chance to sit down with Commissioner Magwood.

“There were some hints around the edges that it’s because of the problem plagued nature of Palisades and he even used the word disappointment for continued problems out there,” Kamps said.

2012 was a crazy year for the Palisades. Get a feel for it in our timeline on Palisades here.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

During an online public meeting Tuesday night, federal nuclear regulators reiterated their belief that the Palisades nuclear power plant in Covert, Michigan, near South Haven is safe.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission hosted the meeting to talk with the public about the strength of the vessel that contains the nuclear reactor and fuel. Radiation, high pressure and temperatures over long periods of time make the metal vessels in all pressurized water reactors more vulnerable at nuclear plants.

Palisades is the oldest nuclear power plant in the state, and it’s got one of the most brittle reactor vessels in the country. Older nuclear plants like Palisades have some copper in the mostly steel vessel; later designs have stronger steel, regulators said.

Mark Kirk is a Senior Materials Engineer in the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research at the NRC.

“It’s unquestionably true that Palisades, one of the welds in Palisades, is one of the most embrittled in all of the plants operating in the US,” Kirk said. “Even so, Palisades continues to operate in compliance with the relevant NRC rules.”

By 2017 the plant’s vessel will become too brittle to legally operate.

Palisades reactor from ouside
Mark Savage / Entergy Nuclear Operations

Nuclear regulators will discuss the risk of “pressurized thermal shock,” one of the biggest fears anti-nuclear groups have about the Palisades nuclear power plant during an online meeting Tuesday.

Over time the radiation, extreme pressure and heat from the nuclear reactor wear on the metal vessel that contains it. That’s called embrittlement.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Company officials who run the Palisades nuclear plant in southwest Michigan say they are improving the safety culture among workers that led to “significant” safety concerns last year. But at a meeting in South Haven Tuesday night, Palisades Site Vice President Tony Vitale said the plant has a “long way to go” to reach “operating excellence.”

Mark Savage / Entergy

On Friday Federal regulators upgraded the safety rating at the Palisades nuclear plant from one of the worst in the country to one of the best. That’s after Palisades passed a major inspection following a number of safety problems last year.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the poor safety culture among workers at Palisades has improved. That culture was blamed for the biggest safety issue that happened in September 2011 when a worker caused an electrical short that resulted in half the control room indicators going dead.

NRC.gov

The federal agency that regulates nuclear power plants released more information on Monday about a leak over the summer at the Palisades plant near South Haven. The plant has one of the worst safety ratings in the US after a number of problems last year.

There have been at least three water leaks at Palisades in the past several months.

Palisades Nuclear Power Plant.
Entergy Corporation

Michigan Radio has been following the problems at the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant for the last several years.

Our West Michigan reporter, Lindsey Smith, has been on top of all the leaks, shutdowns and visits from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

There's been so much news of late, it can get a little confusing.

To clear up what's been happening at Michigan's oldest operating nuclear power plant, we created this timeline.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

A critical two week federal inspection of the Palisades nuclear power plant begins Monday.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors want to determine if Palisades’ owners have addressed problems that have raised questions about the nuclear plant’s “culture of safety”.

The problems have resulted in four unscheduled reactor shutdowns.

“It’s a very important inspection for us,” says Anthony Vitale, the plant’s site vice president,  “And it will give us a very good scrub as to where we are. We expect to come out of that with very good ratings.”

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

The owners of the Palisades nuclear power plant promised last night to improve their “culture of safety."   

But dozens of people at the public meeting doubted that promise.   Catherine Sugas spoke for many people who attended the meeting when she questioned why the problem plagued nuclear power plant is still operating.

“If you can’t shut down a plant that’s dangerous…what are you?    How can you keep a plant going that’s obviously dangerous,” Sugas asked a panel from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The safety of west Michigan’s Palisades nuclear power plant will be the topic of a public meeting tonight in South Haven.

Palisades has one of the worst safety ratings in the country.

Maintenance mistakes and other problems led to four unscheduled reactor shutdowns at Palisades in 2011.  And there have been more problems this year.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Dozens of people crowded around several small tables at conference center in South Haven, six miles north of the Palisades nuclear plant.

Each table features a different area of concern or interest at the plan; the reactor vessel’s embrittlement factor, a water tank leak, a coupling failure, replacement of a cooling tower, how spent fuel is stored, community projects Entergy supports.

Engineers and project managers point to pictures and diagrams to help answer questions. There are little freebies and even a raffle for a new Ipad.

The plant has one of the worst safety ratings in the country after a series of problems in 2011.

Mark Savage / Entergy

New documents show a team of nuclear regulators will begin a major inspection of the Palisades nuclear power plant this month. The inspection is a direct result of the plant’s downgraded safety rating that was issued earlier this year.

Palisades Nuclear Power Plant on Lake Michigan near South Haven, Michigan.
NRC.gov

Palisades Nuclear Power Plant was shut down this past Sunday for a water leak inside a containment building. This is the second leak at the plant this summer that has triggered a shutdown.

The plant is operated by Entergy Nuclear Operations and is located in Covert, Michigan near South Haven.

Today, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that a three member inspection team is at Palisades looking into the problem:

The three member inspection team will begin work Wednesday and look into the circumstances surrounding the leak. They will review the utility’s monitoring of the leak and subsequent plant shutdown, verify the adequacy of radiological controls, evaluate any potential degradation, and review the plant’s repair actions. The team will also review the plant’s reporting requirements and their plan for addressing the cause of the event.

Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith covered the shutdown in yesterday's Environment Report segment. She spoke with Entergy spokesman Mark Savage.

Savage says they’ve determined that a “control rod drive package” is the source of the leak. There are 45 of these control rods. Plant operators can raise or lower control rods to control the rate of the nuclear reaction.

“And occasionally these control rod drives will have a problem. In this case we couldn’t identify it until we actually shut the plant down. So we take aggressive action to shut the plant down, do the right thing, make the repairs and return the plant to service," Savage said.

Palisades has been the focus of significantly more oversight from federal regulators over the last year.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven has shut down again.

This is the second time this summer Entergy Corporation has had to shut down the plant for repairs. 

The plant shut down to refuel in April; that was normal. It restarted in early May.

But then a water leak in a tank above the control room caused the plant to shut back down just a few weeks later. Those repairs took a month and on July 11th the plant started up again. Though that leak appears to be fixed, it is still under investigation by special federal agents with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But as it returned to service in July, Palisades spokesman Mark Savage says operators discovered a different water leak – this time in the building that holds the nuclear reactor. In a written statement, Savage called the leak “minor.”

The company noticed this leak when they restarted the plant after fixing that first leak in a tank above the control room. This leak is in a different area of the plant – the containment building. This building holds the nuclear reactor itself.

Prema Chandrathil is a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  She says the leak is not a threat to public health.

“It’s contained and it goes into the plant’s waste storage tank," Chandrathil said.

Chandrathil says the situation at Palisades is “serious” though. The NRC now has a specialized inspector to assist regular inspectors at the plant while the company makes repairs.

Mark Savage / Entergy

The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven is shut down again. This is the second time this summer Entergy Corporation has had to shut down the plant for repairs.

The plant shut down to refuel in April; that was normal. It restarted in early May.

But then a water leak in a tank above the control room caused the plant to shut back down just a few weeks later. Those repairs took a month and on July 11th the plant started up again. Though that leak appears to be fixed, it is still under investigation by special federal agents with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But as it returned to service in July, Palisades Spokesman Mark Savage says operators discovered a different water leak – this time in the building that holds the nuclear reactor. In a written statement Savage called the leak “minor.”

Mark Savage / Entergy Corporation

Update 11:05 a.m.

Palisades Spokesman Mark Savage issued these bullet points Tuesday in an email response to reporters about the report by Conger & Elsea:

Mark Savage / Entergy Corporation

The Palisades nuclear power plant is returning to service after being shut down for the last four weeks to repair a leaking water tank.

The tank is a giant aluminum sphere that holds 300,000 gallons of water in case of emergencies or a planned refueling outage.

The tank is made up of a bunch of aluminum plates welded together. There are 26 plates on the bottom of the tank.  Palisades spokesman Mark Savage says they found  “several minor through wall leaks” in the aluminum walls and some flaws in the welds themselves and repaired them all.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

This story has been modified to correct a metric conversion and the reference to the substance tritium.

The Palisades plant near South Haven has an aluminum water tank that’s used in case of emergencies or when the plant needs to be refueled. Last month, Entergy, the company that owns the plant, shut the reactor down to fix a leak in the tank.

Palisades knew the tank was leaking for longer than the company first said

It appears that the water tank has been leaking for a lot longer than the company first admitted.

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