This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.
Palisades has been going through some significant challenges over the past couple of years. It’s been shut down eight times in two years – it had its safety rating downgraded to one of the worst in the country. (You can check out our interactive timeline of the events at Palisades over the past two years.)
Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith has been writing about the plant through the turmoil. She joins me now for a sort of year in review.
So, Lindsey, last month, federal regulators upgraded Palisades’ once poor safety rating to the best rating possible – is the plant safer now?
LS: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the plant was always operating safely or they would have shut it down. It’s got a pretty low threshold for screw ups. So the safety rating is a very technical process to measure a plant’s performance. It can be really confusing to hear that the rating jumped so dramatically – even though there’s been a number of water leaks at the plant – as recently as last month it shut down to fix a broken valve.
“I am very concerned about the leaks that have repeatedly occurred.”
This is Bette Pierman addressing the NRC at a meeting Tuesday night. She lives 15 miles away from the plant in Benton Township.
Pierman: “And when you tell me that you are very concerned about the maintenance of this plant, the physical part of this plant, I’m scratching my head. I can’t understand why you upgraded it.”
I asked NRC’s Regional Administrator Chuck Castro pretty much the same question during a press conference before the meeting. Why not gradually increase the safety rating if there are still problems?
Castro: “Because we expect them to completely resolve the issue and have nothing lingering. Lindsey: ‘But what you’re telling me though is they haven’t completely resolved some issues.’ Castro: ‘There’s other issues besides the two. The two issues are completely resolved and we’re satisfied with the fix but we have these other lingering sort of maintenance issues that aren’t risk significant but they indicate to us that there’s still some problems, underlying problems.’”
LS: So the bottom line: Entergy fixed the two issues that got Palisades the bad safety rating, but they’ve got these new problems with the leaks that aren’t directly tied to the safety rating, but that regulators still want to keep an eye on.
RW: Now I remember you saying that there will still be more regulators than usual at Palisades next year, even though they’ve been upgraded to this better safety rating.
LS: Yes, definitely. So, inspectors at the plant feel they need more support to make sure these mechanical problems causing the leaks get taken care of. Castro petitioned his superiors in Washington to pay for an extra 1,000 inspection hours next year. The plant will need to shut down next fall to replace spent nuclear fuel with new stuff and at that time inspectors will be able to get into places that you can’t usually get at when the plant is running. So they should be able to get a more comprehensive look at the inside of the now 40 year old reactor with those extra inspection hours.
RW: What is the company, Entergy, saying about the extra inspections?
LS: Entergy officials were pretty clear that they are not satisfied with the plant’s performance yet either. They have this three year plan to return it to “operational excellence,” as they call it. They have replaced some people in key leadership positions as part of that plan. And they’ll get results of a new independent safety culture assessment early next month to see how they are doing.
Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan reporter.
I’m Rebecca Williams.