NRC chair sees “degraded performance” at Pilgrim nuclear plant
Four days after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission put Pilgrim nuclear power plant on a short list of underperforming plants in the U.S., the NRC’s chairman Allison Macfarlane toured the 685-megawatt plant Friday morning and emerged with some tough assessments.
By Chris Burrell
Posted Nov. 8, 2013 at 12:01 AMUpdated Nov 8, 2013 at 8:19 AM PLYMOUTH
PLYMOUTH – Four days after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission put Pilgrim nuclear power plant on a short list of underperforming plants in the U.S., the NRC’s chairman Allison Macfarlane toured the 685-megawatt plant Friday morning and emerged with some tough assessments.
“We are seeing degraded performance from this plant, and they are going to have to work on it,” said Macfarlane.
Asked if the NRC would take action to stop Pilgrim from operating, Macfarlane said that the agency has closed down other nuclear plants for poor performance and likened Pilgrim to Fort Calhoun nuclear station in Nebraska – shut down by the federal agency two years ago.
“It’s not in the worst shape, but it’s been headed in that direction (of Fort Calhoun), and we want to make sure they don’t get there,” said Macfarlane.
It was Macfalane’s first visit to Pilgrim since she took over the NRC more than a year ago. She planned to meet behind closed doors with both local and state officials and interest groups for the remainder of Friday.
“We are now going to be taking a close look at this facility in the coming year,” said Macfarlane.
Her inspection of the plant comes just days after the NRC announced a downgrade of the plant’s performance linked to an unplanned shutdown of the plant in August and said that another downgrade will likely be announced in the next three months, linked to problems at Pilgrim from October.
The October scram – or unplanned shutdown – will put Pilgrim by year’s end into an even smaller category of nuclear plants in the country considered by the NRC to be “degraded.” That list now stands at seven plants.
The NRC uses a color-coded rating system that ranks adequately performing plants as green and troubled ones as white.
“At the conclusion of the fourth quarter, Pilgrim will likely have two white inputs contributing to the initiating events cornerstone, transitioning Pilgrim into the degraded cornerstone,” the NRC wrote in a letter to Pilgrim on Wednesday.
Performance ratings for two other categories – safety systems and emergency generators – are also dipping very close to leaving the acceptable green status toward the white rating category that NRC considers underperforming.
NRC inspectors will be at the plant, looking at the problems and trying to uncover root causes, said Macfarlane.
“Equipment reliability problems have been challenging them,” said William Dean, a regional inspector from the NRC who accompanied Macfarlane.
Pilgrim most recently shut down last month for six days when it lost power from a 345-kilovolt NStar line that provides electricity to the plant.
It was the plant’s fourth shutdown this year. Pilgrim has been offline for 79 days this year, but 46 of those days were for planned maintenance and refueling.
Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., which operates Pilgrim and 10 other nuclear plants in the U.S., said Monday that the company is already addressing problems at the plant.
“We have conducted rigorous reviews of the plant shutdowns to identify needed improvements,” said James Sinclair, spokesman for Entergy Corp., which owns the plant. “Changes have been made in some key site leadership positions to accelerate our improvement.”
Pilgrim is just about to begin transferring spent nuclear fuel from pools to a dry cask storage system, and Macfarlane said the NRC is aware of risks posed by by fuel stored in pools and is working on plans to expedite that process.
Plymouth selectman Kenneth Tavares said Friday after meeting with Macfarlane that he was glad to open up a communication line with the NRC especially after a testy meeting selectmen had last April with the federal agency.
After that meeting, “(the NRC) said, ‘We’re not going to meet with you because you were insulting,’” Tavares said, stressing that Macfarlane was receptive to their concerns at the Friday meeting.
“We were never supposed to become a depository for spent fuel rods,” Tavares said. “Now we’re concered if the plant shuts down, who will be overseeing what’s going on?”
Reach Chris Burrell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Burrell_Ledger.
PLYMOUTH / Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Alli son Macfarlane talks to reporters after touring the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth. Friday, Nov. 8, 2013/ Chris Burrell/ The Patriot Ledger