Environment
10:51 pm
Wed January 11, 2012

Palisades acknowledges mistakes; insists less risk than regulators think

Officials from Entergy Corporation, the company that operates the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven, appeared in front of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday.

The company is hoping to avoid getting another safety violation; it was issued one already this month. “We’ve lost the trust of our neighbors. We’ve lost the trust of our corporation and we’re going to fix that,” said David Hamilton, general manager of plant operations. The hearing was about two separate incidents at the plant last year.

Entergy Corporation “concurs” with NRC’s findings

The more serious of the two incidents was a week-long shutdown of the power plant last September. It went offline because of an electrical outage at the plant that happened because a worker didn’t follow proper procedures during routine maintenance.  “This was an event that allowed my electricians to feel that they could put themselves at such risk; I apologize if I get emotional but I could’ve killed somebody on the weekend of September 25th,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton and other company officials who spoke said the incident was “avoidable” and “intolerable” and mostly caused by human error. Entergy Palisades Site Vice President Tony Vitale said no one was fired at the plant for the incident but that “disciplinary actions were taken appropriately.”

Company officials don’t agree the incident was as much of a risk as the NRC does. At the hearings, regulators and Palisades officials discussed for at least an hour how the NRC determined the risk of the incidents. The company’s model that determines risk results is a lower risk than the NRC. The NRC says the event in September was of “substantial safety significance”.

Cynthia Pederson, the acting regional administrator for NRC’s region 3 outlined what she called “our perspective” on Palisades. “Quite frankly we find your performance very troubling. And certainly it has declined and you’ve admitted that yourself today,” Pederson said. “Particularly troublesome is the lack of standards, or the failure to meet standards…a decline in safety standard.” Company officials said they had focused more on the quantity, rather than the quality, of safety checks. 

“You commented that Palisades has not been operating to Entergy standards,” Pederson continued, “Entergy has run this plant for over 4 years. We’re getting tired of that old excuse. We need to see performance change.”

Pederson then summarized a list of the concerns discussed at the hearing:

  • Organizational failures
  • The need for a recovery plan
  • Poor quality work instructions
  • Failure to follow procedures
  • Poor supervision and oversight of work
  • Poor maintenance
  • Failure to respect the role of an operator
  • Multiple events caused by personnel or equipment failures
  • Questionable safety structure

 

Violation of "low to moderate significance" finalized already this month

The NRC just issued a violation notice to Entergy 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. The NRC says this violation falls into a risk category of "low to moderate significance." 

Residents and activists speak out

“This place is an accident waiting to happen,” Kevin Kamps said during a questions and answer session following the NRC hearing. Kamps is a radioactive waste watchdog with Beyond Nuclear.

“I urge the NRC to enforce your regulations to the fullest extent of the law. Your mandate is to protect public health and safety and this is a huge risk to the Great Lakes,” Kamps said.

People who reportedly live close to the plant listened to the hearing on the phone.

“I was startled to see about all the problems that have occurred at this plant,” a nearby resident who identified himself only as Justin said at the hearing, after looking up the plant’s record online.

“I’m just wondering, what is it going to take before it's shut down? Because everything keeps getting worse and worse at that place,” said Kathryn Barnes of the Don’t Waste Michigan Sherwood chapter. Barnes raised concerns about cancer risks for people who live close to or work in the plant. She talked about security concerns and aging infrastructure at the plant.

What’s next for Palisades?

The NRC will issue its final report within 60 days. Because of the violation from May that’s already finalized, Palisades will have more oversight beginning this year.

If the other two findings are finalized as is, regulators would perform “significantly more” oversight at the plant. Palisades would be one of only three nuclear plants in the country with such a serious safety violation.