This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.
The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven has an aluminum water tank that’s used in case of emergencies or when the plant needs to be refueled. That water tank has been leaking for several weeks. On Tuesday evening, the Palisades plant was shut down so workers can fix the leak.
Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan reporter. Lindsey, the shutdown this week was a planned outage – so, in other words, the plant operators saw this coming.
Lindsey: That’s right – the company, Entergy, told me this tank has been leaking for several weeks. It’s an old aluminum tank that holds 300,000 gallons of water. By old I mean it’s been around as long as Palisades – 40 years old.
It’s considered to be a small leak and the company has been collecting the water and monitoring it for weeks. But on Tuesday the amount reached 31 gallons per day… and that was the threshold where the company determined the leak had to be fixed. So that means taking the plant out of service.
Rebecca: Does that water that’s leaking out pose any safety hazard?
Lindsey: We asked Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson Viktoria Mitlyng that question and she says no.
“They’re collecting that water; it has no way of getting out of the plant. It cannot go outside and it does not pose a threat to plant workers and at this rate of leakage it does not compromise the plant’s stability or safety. "
Rebecca: So any idea how long it’ll take to fix this leak?
Lindsey: No clue. The plant operators will never say how long an outage will last. Entergy spokesperson Mark Savage walked me through the process though:
“Shut the reactor down which we’ve done, unload the water from the tank, find the leak, repair the leak fill it up again and start the reactor back up.”
Rebecca: So this time around the shutdown was planned. But Palisades had five unplanned shutdowns last year – and one of those was considered to be of substantial safety significance. Because of that the power plant now has one of the worst safety ratings in the country.
Lindsey: And that means the federal government is watching the plant more closely. NRC spokesperson Viktoria Mitlyng says they want to see how the plant operators handle this repair… and see what caused the leak in the first place.
“You know, we are at the same time evaluating plant performance. If we find any deficiencies or any findings that will be public information, we will document it in the inspection report.”
In addition to this… the Palisades plant has to undergo a major follow-up inspection to see how they’re doing after all those safety problems last year. The plant has until the end of September to get ready for that inspection. If they’re not ready by then they’ll be moved into a category that’s one step next to mandatory shutdown by the federal government.
Rebecca: You’ve reported recently that Entergy is revamping all of its safety procedures. But the NRC Chairman toured the plant at the end of May and said that plant operators have made some improvements but they need to work on the fundamentals of nuclear safety.
Lindsey: Yeah, that was sort of ear catching, I’ll say, when the NRC chair says a company needs to work on the “basics of nuclear safety” as he put it. The agency is worried about poor maintenance, a questionable safety structure, poor work supervision, failure to follow up on procedures.
Here’s the list of the concerns discussed at the NRC’s January 2012 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
But the NRC chairman said that he believes the company is making progress.
Most importantly, the NRC says the Palisades plant is operating safely, and if it were not, they would shut it down.
Rebecca: Thanks Lindsey. Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan reporter. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.