PLYMOUTH - Leaky valves, corroded supports, failed pumps, and safety gear still in use decades after its shelf life had expired all contributed to making 2016 another tough year for Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.
Ranked one of the three worst performers in the nation's commercial nuclear fleet, based on benchmarks set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Pilgrim, owned and operated by Entergy Corp., was required to undergo three special inspections this year.
During the first of the three inspections, done last January, federal regulators issued a report expressing concern over Pilgrim's constant failure to follow through. They cited a water leak in the system that cools the reactor after a sudden shutdown. The leak had been discovered a year earlier but never addressed.
The second special inspection, conducted in April, yielded similar maintenance-related concerns. This time, the infraction involved the breakdown of bearings on one of the pumps used to draw millions of gallons of seawater from Cape Cod Bay into the plant to cool the reactor building. Problems with the bearings were known to plant personnel long before the breakdown.
A team of 20 inspectors nationwide are now two weeks into the three-week final inspection, which will conclude the second week in January.
The public was afforded a glimpse into how Pilgrim was faring via an in-house email written by the inspection team leader and mistakenly forwarded to a member of an anti-Pilgrim activist group in early December.
Donald Jackson noted failure of plant workers to follow established industry procedures, broken equipment that never gets properly fixed, lack of required expertise among plant experts, and a team of employees who appear to be struggling with keeping the nuclear plant running.
While officials and the public have been clamoring for more information regarding the observations made in the email, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will remain tight-lipped until February 2017, when the inspection has been completed and the final report written.
The day after the leaked email, a new evaluation of the Boraflex panels in Pilgrim's pool estimated 885 of the neutron-absorbing panels, which prevent a nuclear reaction from occurring, could be deteriorating by next September, increasing the chances of a fire and radioactive release.
Earlier this year, investigators announced that a security officer had failed to conduct assigned fire watches more than 200 times in a two-year period between June 2012 and June 2014, in areas that required hourly checks because fire suppression systems were inoperable. The worker then falsified logs to look as though the watches had been done.
Plant watchdogs have been active during the last year, working to get the reactor permanently shut down before Entergy's planned closure date of May 31, 2019.
The Cape Downwinders delivered several letters to Gov. Charlie Baker, urging him to use his authority as the state's top public safety official to order Pilgrim shut down. Baker maintains he trusts the NRC's judgment when it comes to protecting the public.
Pilgrim operators are preparing for a scheduled replacement of fuel rods in the reactor this spring, necessary if the plant is to remain online until 2019. The procedure will require an additional investment of $70 million in the 44-year-old plant.
- Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @ChrisLegereCCT.
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