The Palisades nuclear power plant is six miles south of South Haven on the shore of Lake Michigan.
The plant had five unplanned shutdowns last year. Four of those were unplanned reactor shutdowns. The fifth was a problem with the plant’s water pumps that did not affect the reactor.
Viktoria Mitlyng is a spokesperson with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She says the Palisades plant is under scrutiny.
“There are so many issues in one year that have come up, you know, there’s certainly a concern. And we recognize that as a regulatory agency and are keeping a very close eye at what’s happening at the plant.”
The NRC has just issued a violation notice to the company that owns the Palisades plant - Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc. - for a separate incident that happened in May. A water pump at the plant failed - and regulators concluded that’s because one of the components was lubricated when it shouldn’t have been.
NRC says violation is of "low to moderate significance"
The NRC says this violation falls into a risk category of "low to moderate significance." But there’s a regulatory hearing expected next week to address two additional safety issues – one of which is what the NRC calls substantial safety significance.
That’s a much bigger deal than the water pump investigation finalized this week. In the more serious situation, the plant was offline for about a week last September because of a power outage. An electrical circuit at the plant broke when a worker was doing routine maintenance. The worker did not follow procedures for doing the work. When Lindsey Smith talked to NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng in November, she said the worker had actually gotten permission from his managers not to follow procedures.
“Nobody stopped in their tracks and said 'hey, what are we doing here? We need to rethink this.'”
The company responds
Mark Savage is a spokesperson for Entergy Nuclear Operations. He admits there were some problems that led to the incidents in May and September.
"The procedures themselves did not specify: do this, do this, do this. There was obviously a lack of procedural clarity.”
Savage says the company is always reviewing those procedures.
But he says the workers are also expected to bring problems to the attention of their supervisors.
"When workers find errors or things that have cloudiness in them, you know, not directive, that's when they're to stop and have the procedures changed.”
Savage says Palisades is operating safely.
NRC planning increased oversight of Palisades
The NRC has downgraded the Palisades plant as a result of the water pump violation. This means the power plant will have to undergo an additional safety inspection.
In the regulatory hearing that’s expected next week, the company will have a chance to challenge the NRC on its investigations. If the NRC finalizes its finding that the electrical outage in September was a significant safety concern, the Palisades plant could be downgraded further, and that would mean significantly more federal oversight at Palisades.
If that happens, the Palisades plant would be one of only three plants in the country with such a serious safety concern on its record.
Federal regulators insist Palisades plant continues to operate safely
The Palisades plant is more than 40 years old. The license was recently renewed until 2031.
NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng says in spite of the multiple problems in 2011, the plant is operating safely.
“None of these issues resulted in any kind of incident that undermined the stability of the plant or had an impact on plant workers. It’s just that the threshold for identifying issues is very low because we want to make sure equipment is functioning properly at all times because there’s a very small margin of error for a nuclear power plant.”
So the regulators say they'll be watching... possibly much more closely than before.