Are the safety problems at Palisades getting any better yet?

Mar 28, 2013

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.

One year ago today, I took my own tour of the plant. It was about 6 weeks after Palisades earned one of the worst safety ratings in the country.  The downgrade came after a series of what the NRC calls “substantial” safety problems in 2011.

On March 28th, 2012 I toured the Palisades plant.
On March 28th, 2012 I toured the Palisades plant.
Credit Mark Savage / Entergy Corporation

In 2012, the plant shut down five times, most of them to make repairs or fix water leaks. There were water leaks from at least three different systems.

One in particular was serious enough the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent a special team to investigate. In that case, hot, pressurized water leaked from the steel container that holds the nuclear reactor. Technically, the leak came from the reactor vessel's control rod drive mechanism.

The leak went on for weeks. As much as 18 gallons an hour was leaking before the company shut the plant down. That system holds 80,000 gallons of water. An NRC official estimated up to 10,000 gallons leaked over 33 days.

“NRC safety regulations require a shutdown within 6 hours if you have a pressure boundary leak,” Kevin Kamps said, “Lo and behold that was what was going on but it took them a month to figure it out.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists included the leak on it's list of "near-misses" at American nuclear plants. "The NRC's inaction in this matter is inexcusable," the March 2012 report said.

No safety violations have been issued for that leak, but NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng points out the event is still under investigation.

Unlike Kamps, Mitlyng says 2012 was a better year for Palisades.

“Yes, definitely because they did resolve those violations,” Mitlyng said. The safety violations from 2011 were resolved after a major inspection in the fall of 2012.

Late last year, after 10 months of being on one of the worst performing  list of nuclear plants, the NRC upgraded the rating to the best possible.

That move confused and disappointed many nearby residents. Kevin Flynn lives just a couple hundred yards away from the plant.

“They said the leak came from an area that they’re not used to and I think we’re in an area of uncharted water with an old plant that’s enbrittled – they don’t know where the leaks are going to come from. They don’t know where the next problem will occur and that’s a problem,” Flynn told me in December.

The NRC is still pretty worried about all those leaks. Even though they haven’t issued any safety violations, they’re still planning a number of additional inspections to keep an eye on the progress of repairs.

Entergy Corporation, the company that owns Palisades, declined to comment for this story.

Company representatives will be available though at the plant’s annual review meeting. The NRC is hosting that public meeting in South Haven on Tuesday.