Another Leak at Palisades Power Plant

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

The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven has shut down again.

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

This is the second time this summer Entergy Corporation has had to shut down the plant for repairs.  Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s west Michigan reporter and she joins me now to get us up to speed.  So, Lindsey – the plant shut down to fix a water leak. I thought they just fixed a leak?

LS: This is a different leak. The company noticed this leak when they restarted the plant after fixing that first leak in a tank above the control room. This leak is in a different area of the plant – the containment building. This building holds the nuclear reactor itself.

RW: Where’s that water going?

LS: I asked Prema Chandrathil that question. She’s a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“This leak is not a threat to public health. It’s contained and it goes into the plant’s waste storage tank.”

Chandrathil says the situation at Palisades is “serious” though. The NRC now has a specialized inspector to assist regular inspectors at the plant while the company makes repairs.

RW: Do we know what’s causing the leak yet?

LS: Not yet. Palisades Spokesman Mark Savage says they’ve determined that a “control rod drive package” is the source of the leak. There are 45 of these control rods. Plant operators can raise or lower control rods to control the rate of the nuclear reaction.

“And occasionally these control rod drives will have a problem. In this case we couldn’t identify it until we actually shut the plant down. So we take aggressive action to shut the plant down, do the right thing, make the repairs and return the plant to service.”

But Rebecca, there are a lot of people, nuclear watchdogs in particular, who are quick to point out that Palisades has had a number of problems with these control rod drives.

RW: Problems they’ve had recently?

LS: Yeah, I mean this is the second time this year alone Palisades shut down to fix a leak related to these control rod drives. Back in January they replaced some seals on the rods that were worn out.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists notes control rod problems at Palisades that go back decades.

David Lochbaum directs the Union’s Nuclear Safety Project.

“Other plants have similar designs and have at times in their past experienced problems but they were able to find the problem and fixed it the first or at worse second time. Whereas Palisades is at more than a dozen times. Something’s wrong there and the company has yet to figure out what it is and fix it.”  

Indeed, Palisades’ spokesman Mark Savage says they have yet to determine the cause of the leak.

RW: So what are they going to do?

LS: Savage says they’ll completely replace at least one of those 45 control rod drive packages.

Lochbaum with the Nuclear Safety Project says that’ll only work if it resolves the underlying problems. He says the NRC needs to do more to make sure the root cause is identified and fixed this time.

RW: Lindsey, you’ve been reporting that the Palisades plant had a series of problems last year that left it with one of the worst safety ratings in the country.  But the NRC has continued to say that the plant is operating safely – are they still saying that?

Lindsey: Yeah, they say that if the plant was ever not operating safely they would not hesitate to shut it down. That’s what they always say; they’re still saying that. But we do have a lot of problems with safety culture; that has been a problem at Palisades, and the next inspection that goes along with that will be in September. That’s really the big inspection next for Palisades.

RW: All right, Lindsey, thanks for staying on top of this.

Lindsey: No problem.

Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s west Michigan reporter.

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