Pilgrim plant workers aim for a safe shutdown
A canal discharged saltwater used for cooling at the Pilgrim plant.
CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF
By David Abel GLOBE STAFF OCTOBER 31, 2015
PLYMOUTH — Behind the barbed-wire fences and heavily armed guards protecting the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, Steve Verrochi and his department heads huddled around a long table to review the daily report of potential safety concerns at one of the nation’s most troubled nuclear plants.
A component of the security system had been declared “unreliable” and an “unexpected alarm” had gone off in the plant’s control room. Some fans at the huge plant had failed, and a radiation monitor required repairs after being struck by lightning. There were leaky seals, malfunctioning gauges, corroding pipes, and a computer that ceased providing real-time data about reactor power.
And the maintenance workers were falling behind on their repairs.
“We need to get back on track,” Verrochi, the plant’s general manager, told his staff at that recent morning meeting, as a Globe reporter looked on. “The last couple of weeks we’ve been off the mark.”
This month, Entergy Corp. announced that it will shutter the money-losing plant no later than June 2019. Plant officials, as well as federal regulators, insist that Pilgrim remains safe, even as company officials say the plant is losing about $40 million a year, and that they expect to pay tens of millions of dollars to comply with new federal inspections. But antinuclear activists argue that the plant is unsafe and fear that Entergy will now scrimp on safety to save cash.
Maintenance at the 43-year-old plant has received increased scrutiny since the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission downgraded Pilgrim’s safety ranking in September, designating the plant as having one of the nation’s three least-safe reactors.
The meeting in a white-walled conference room of the operations building reflected the risks of continuing to run a 43-year-old plant, which will start the decades-long task of decommissioning after it closes.
During the visit, the plant’s attention to safety and security concerns was evident nearly everywhere throughout the sprawling facility along Cape Cod Bay.
Guards in black fatigues, who carry assault rifles and handguns, patrol the property and keep a close watch from scores of cameras and bulletproof towers. They regularly train for terrorist attacks and store weapons in gun lockers and armored vehicles, while local and federal law enforcement officials patrol the waters beyond the rocky sea wall off the coast.
Visitors must pass through a gantlet of security before nearing sensitive areas, including massive concrete barriers to protect against truck bombs, steel turnstile doors that require handprints to open, and X-ray machines that examine the contents of bags and others that check for explosive residue.
Inside, posters exhort employees to mind their ALARA, the ubiquitous acronym reminding them to reduce their radiation exposure to “as low as reasonably achievable.”
Others remind them that “every millirem counts” and “we are all responsible for radiation protection.”
A spent fuel pool contains thousands of fuel assemblies.
The average US resident is exposed to about 620 millirem of radiation a year, according to the regulatory commission; Pilgrim allows its employees near radiation until they absorb 1,200 millirem. If there’s a major emergency, plant officials allow them to be exposed to as much as 20,000 millirem.
High doses of radiation can cause cancer, but the regulatory commission says on its website that “there are no data to establish a firm link between cancer and doses below about 10,000 millirem.”
Employees who work in the containment area at Pilgrim are required to wear devices that track their radiation.
John Ohrenberger, who oversees 95 employees who do maintenance at the plant, said he used to get about 1,200 millirem of radiation a year as a nuclear mechanic. He wasn’t concerned about the routine radiation exposure, even as his staff’s workload has risen to address the plant’s aging systems.
“There’s a lot of obsolete stuff out there,” he said. “We do a lot of repairs.”
Those jobs include working inside the drywell that houses the reactor, where hundreds of highly radioactive fuel rods generate steam that turns the plant’s turbines to create electricity.
Plant officials use equipment to suck nitrogen out of the air before the workers open the steel hatch to enter the steamy drywell, which is where Tom Wonsey found himself last January when one of four critical safety valves failed.
The nuclear mechanic was part of a team that spent about 30 hours wearing special anticontamination suits, using wrenches to replace the bulky valve, which weighs more than 1,000 pounds and helps cool the reactor when it powers down. That failure, following previous safety valve problems, led the regulatory commission to downgrade the plant’s safety rating.
Yet the prolonged proximity to the reactor didn’t faze Wonsey, who estimates he has been exposed to about 1,000 millirem of radiation this year. “I’ve never seen anything to be concerned about the plant’s safety,” he said between jobs at the plant.
CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF
David Noyes of Entergy walked past dry cask storage units last week during a tour of the Pilgrim nuclear plant.
Plant officials showed the redundant systems they would use to prevent a calamity, including water pumps and diesel generators stored in multiple locations, well above sea level. They would be used in the event the plant lost power to cool the reactor, as occurred in Japan after a tsunami in 2011 ravaged the Fukushima nuclear plant.
While Entergy has invested millions of dollars in safety upgrades to comply with new federal regulations triggered by Fukushima, some longtime employees acknowledge they can only prepare for what they can foresee.
“When Fukushima happened, it took everyone aback,” said Paul Smith, a staff engineer who has worked at Pilgrim since 1968. “It taught us we don’t know everything. It also taught us modesty.”
In the coming years, as the plant enters the decommissioning process, its employees will still have dangerous work to do. They’ll have to transfer 3,162 highly radioactive fuel assemblies from the spent fuel pool to massive casks, a delicate, expensive task that will leave them indefinitely on a large concrete pad beside the reactor building.
Helping ensure that the plant complies with federal safety regulations is Erin Carfang, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s senior resident inspector at Pilgrim.
She said she goes wherever she wants at the plant and has issued multiple violations to Pilgrim, including the one earlier this year that led the regulatory commission to downgrade its safety rating.
If the plant becomes unsafe, Carfang said, she wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it be closed before 2019. She has young children and lives near the plant, she added.
“We believe there is an adequate safety margin for the plant to continue operating,” she said in her office. “We have a vested interest in keeping it safe.”
At the recent morning meeting, the 27-page report the group reviewed showed that the plant’s staff had already been exposed to nearly 97 percent of the radiation that Pilgrim officials had set as a goal for the year.
Verrochi also heard reports from maintenance, engineering, security, and other departments about concerns both big and small.
Verrochi worried that “mental distractions” could lead to “severe consequences.”
“It’s all about being deliberate,” he reminded the staff. “If you find yourself in a situation where your mind drifts, it’s time to readjust.”
Verrochi discussed how to “finish strong in 2019” and gently reprimanded the staff for being three minutes late to the meeting, which prompted the department heads to flash a thumbs-down sign in unison.
Then he praised the staff for their alertness and “excellent job” responding to a leak in the control room, prompting a thumbs-up from the staff.
“Be deliberate and act with integrity,” he told them before adjourning the meeting.
Entergy official David Noyes walked past the concrete shield atop the Pilgrim reactor last week.
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.