‘Safety culture’ a problem at Pilgrim Station

Federal inspectors found numerous problems at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, but remain confident the plant is safe.

Many people who live near it aren’t as confident.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials came to Plymouth Tuesday night and presented their preliminary findings of their intensive inspection of Pilgrim  Station to a largely hostile crowd at the Hotel 1620. The three-week long inspection, which recently ended, was prompted Pilgrim’s classification as one of the worst performing nuclear power plants in the country.

The presentation was released by the leaking of a memo by an NRC official which described staff at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station as being “overwhelmed by just trying to run the station.” The memo was written as the inspection was starting. NRC officials originally planned on bringing the results of their inspection to the public later in the winter. However, demands from officials, including Governor Charlie Baker, to come before the public prompted the earlier meeting.

Safety culture is an issue at the plant  Don Jackson, the NRC official who led the inspection and wrote the memo that prompted the meeting, said. There are problems with accountability and the the ability of Pilgrim staff to present their concerns he said. But he added, staff at the plant gave “good cooperation” with the inspection.

The problems at Pilgrim aren’t due so much with safety systems as with the culture at the plant. said Director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation Bill Dean. That’s going to take a concerted effort by Entergy,”

Mechanical problems were also noted in the inspection, Jackson said. Among theme were long-time issues with the diesel generators that provide backup power to the station and a heat exchange system. He expected the final report would find between 10 and 15 violations at the plant.  Staff at the plant did come up with some 600 corrective actions to fix problems. Including improving the corrective action program itself, he said. But  “we determined it could be better.”

When those in attendance had their chance to speak, they were less interested in asking questions and more interested in venting their frustration with both the NRC and the power plant’s owner, Entergy Corporation. Many people questioned whether the company would spend the necessary money to fix the plant since it is scheduled to be shut down in 2019.

“Entergy is unwilling to make investments” to  run the plant, said a representative of Attorney General Maura Healey. She called for an additional resident inspector to be assigned to Pilgrim and a guarantee that Entergy won’t cut staff before the plant closes. Others present noted that Entergy’s entire nuclear fleet has a poor track record. Arkansas One and Two which are the only two nuclear power plants as low-rated as Pilgrim are owned by Entergy.  “ Entergy is a known repeat offender, ” Ted Thomas of Wellfleet said.  The company has no motivation to fix the problems since it as closed or sold half its nuclear fleet, William Maurer of Falmouth. “It requires TLC, but Entergy isn’t putting the money in, Duxbury Nuclear Advisory Committee Chairman Mary Lampert said.

Much of the crowd’s ire was directed that the NRC itself, however. The inspection only looked at 15 percent of the plant’s systems, according to Lampert.  “ Based on the small sample, what other problems might there be?” asked David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Jackson responded that they looked at a “smart set” of safety systems. Other systems, he said, are checked on a daily basis by resident inspectors.  

Sometimes the complaints were less specific. “I’m not sure we’re really heard,” said Kingston resident Sara Alterr. You are putting our lives at risk. you cannot make us safe,” Pine DuBois of the Jones River Watershed Association said. “The NRC and weak regulators that promote the industry will not save us, said Diane Turco of the Cape Downwinders. Turco was the one who was accidently sent the memo that prompted the meeting.

Despite what they heard, NRC official expressed confidence in both their inspection process and the safety of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. “Tis inspection is not an endpoint it’s a starting point. Said NRC  Regional Administrator Dan Dorman.  We don’t just look for deficiency, we try to diagnose why they happened,” Jackson said. Even now, NRC inspectors are in contact with Pilgrim Station staff, he added. They have not found anything that would further downgrade the plant’s status, Dorman said. “there’s 500 years of experience is telling me the plant is safe,” he said.

NRC officials will return in March with their final report. 

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