New Investigation Into Palisades Plant

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

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

The Palisades plant near South Haven has an aluminum water tank that’s used in case of emergencies or when the plant needs to be refueled. It’s been leaking. Last month, Entergy – the company that owns the plant – shut it down to fix the leak.

Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith has been covering this story. Lindsey, it’s just come out that that water tank has been leaking for a LOT longer than the company first admitted.

Lindsey: Yeah, at that time a Palisades spokesperson told me Entergy knew about the leak for several weeks. But it turns out that they really knew about this tank leaking for more than a year.

Rebecca: How’d you find that out?

Lindsey: So a watchdog group dug up a document – this is a document from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that’s the federal agency that regulates Palisades and all the other nuclear power plants in the country. So, go back to May 18th 2011. There’s water leaking into the plant’s control room. This is the brain of the planet. Workers determined at that point that rain was getting into the control room. But they also found a tiny leak in this huge water tank. The tank rests above the control room. Now, tiny is 400 milliliters – from a water tank that holds close to 300,000 gallons. So, because it’s such a super tiny amount they plan to fix the tank during the next planned refueling outage. No biggie.

So this past April – the plant shuts down to replace its spent nuclear fuel rods. Mark Savage says the tank was drained and repairs began.

“The modification we made to what’s called the nozzle in the tank we thought was the leak source.”

But when they fill up the tank it’s still leaking. In fact it’s probably worse.

Rebecca: Worse than before?

Lindsey: Yeah, remember before they tried to fix the tank the leak was nearly two cups of water a day. After the fix the leak got as bad as 31 gallons day.

Rebecca: So this water that’s leaking out, is it safe?

Lindsey: It does contain “trace amounts” of tritium – that’s a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. That’s because the water comes into contact with the fuel at the plant, Savage said. It was contained in smaller tanks when the big tank was leaking and federal regulators say there was no danger to workers or the public – it never left the plant.

Rebecca: Since the last time we talked about Palisades, a group of special federal investigators has launched an investigation into the leaky water tank. What’s going on with that?

Lindsey: Well, the company can’t comment – or it won’t comment – on the investigation and there’s not much the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can say about open investigations either. But NRC Spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng says the investigation isn’t about the current leak issues – it’s about the “historical handling” of the water tank leak.

“You know how much of a leak, and what did you know, when did you know it? Stuff like that – those are the questions that we have to wait before we can respond.”

I don’t know what they’re looking into but there was something that caught my eye in reviewing these documents. When plant workers were figuring out where the water in the control room was coming from they had to go out of their way to check out some of the pipes connected to the water tank. Documents show the pipes hadn’t been inspected in more than 17 years even though they’re supposed to every three or four years. But I don’t know if that’s what the investigators are looking into. And NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng cannot comment on this issue because it is under investigation.

Thanks Lindsey. Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan reporter. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.