Violation Notice for Palisades Nuclear Plant

  • The Palisades nuclear power plant in Van Buren County, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The federal government issues a violation for a safety issue at the Palisades nuclear power plant…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Palisades plant is six miles south of South Haven on the shore of Lake Michigan.

The plant had five unplanned shutdowns last year. Four of those were unplanned reactor shutdowns. The fifth was a problem with the plant’s water pumps that did not affect the reactor. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just issued a violation notice to the company that owns the Palisades plant for a separate incident that happened in May.

Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith has been following this and she joins me now. Lindsey, why did the agency issue this violation?

LS: It gets a little technical. A water pump at the plant failed. And regulators concluded that’s because one of the components was lubricated when it shouldn’t have been.

RW: So how serious is this?

LS: The NRC says this violation is of low to moderate significance. BUT… there’s a regulatory hearing expected next week to address two additional safety issues – one of which is what the NRC calls substantial safety significance.

That’s a much bigger deal than the one finalized this week. In that case the plant was offline for about a week last September because of a power outage. An electric circuit at the plant broke when a worker was doing routine maintenance. The worker did not follow procedures for doing the work. When I talked to NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng in November she said the worker had actually gotten permission from his managers not to follow procedures.

Entergy Nuclear Operations owns the Palisades plant. Mark Savage is a spokesperson. He admits there were some problems that led to the incidents in May and September.

“The procedures themselves did not specify: do this, do this, do this. There was obviously a lack of procedural clarity.”

Savage says the company is always reviewing those procedures.

But he says the workers are also expected to bring problems to the attention of their supervisors.

Remember – regulators said with that power failure back in September, a worker had asked his manager about the procedures, but managers told the worker he could go ahead with the work anyway.

RW: So in this regulatory hearing that’s coming up, the company will have a chance to challenge the NRC on its investigation. What happens if the NRC decides that electrical outage was a significant safety concern?

LS: Well, because of the water pump problem in May, the NRC will be doing some additional oversight, anyway. If the agency finds bigger problems from the power failure in September, that would mean significantly more federal oversight at Palisades.

If that happens, the Palisades plant would be one of only three plants in the country with such a serious safety concern on its record.

RW: The Palisades plant is more than 40 years old. The license was renewed until 2031. We’ve heard about all these problems last year. What does the federal government say about the safety of this plant?

LS: Right now, NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng says the plant is operating safely.

“None of these issues resulted in any kind of incident that undermined the stability of the plant or had an impact on plant workers. It’s just that the threshold for identifying issues is very low because we want to make sure equipment is functioning properly at all times because there’s a very small margin of error for a nuclear power plant.”

And power plant operators say the plant is operating fine, too. But with all of these little things that have been coming up this past year, it’s definitely been a rocky year for Palisades and the federal government will definitely be keeping a closer eye on the plant this year, too.

RW: Okay, thanks, Lindsey.

LS: Thanks.

Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan reporter.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.