NRC’s safety rating system is color-coded, ranging from red to yellow, then white and green.
Indian Point 2 was the first nuclear power plant in the nation to garner a red rating following a steam generator tube failure in February 2000, according to NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.
A “deviation memo” is in effect for Indian Point, Sheehan said, because of concerns raised by retired software manager William Lemanski about cable separation issues at Indian Point.
Lemanski came forward last March claiming cables were improperly separated at the facility, a condition that could jeopardize the redundancy necessary to protect the system from an emergency.
Indian Point spokesman Jim Steets said criticism about a slow response to the whistleblower at Indian Point was justified, but he explained the tardy action.
“When software is updated, anomalies come out,” Steets explained.
For example, color-coding for cables has changed over time, so new software doesn’t understand the terminology for older systems.
NRC inspectors worked on the perceived problem, Steets said. He interviewed half a dozen workers who deal with cables.
“To me and you, [the cables] are like hair on our heads,” Steets said, referring to the sheer number and entanglement of the cables to one who isn’t familiar with the path and function of each.
To those who work with the cables, he went on to say, the system is clearly labeled and understood.
The effort to trace the separation of each cable is ongoing, Steets said, and once the process is completed to the satisfaction of the NRC, Indian Point will enjoy greater autonomy and fewer specialized inspections, owing to the green safety rating. The point of cable separation is to ensure redundancy in an emergency.
On February 20, 2004, Lemanski wrote a letter to the NRC in which he noted for two years he’d been complaining to Entergy about perceived the safety concern, but was ignored.
On March 22, 2004, environmental watchdog organization Riverkeeper and two other Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC) member organizations filed a formal allegation with the NRC stating the “concerns raised by William Lemanski potentially speak to a much more extensive problem regarding improperly sorted electric cables at the Indian Point 2 nuclear power plant.”
Riverkeeper issued a statement earlier this year addressing the cable concern.
“The problem Lemanski has raised is similar to an industry-wide problem that was serious enough to have prompted the closure of the Maine Yankee nuclear plant in 1997. The owners of the Maine Yankee plant decided to decommission the facility after finding cable problems so abundant that correcting them would have been too expensive,” Riverkeeper noted.
The NRC requires nuclear plants to separate certain cables by distance or fire barriers so that a single fire or other accident doesn’t cut power to both a vital system and the equipment that’s supposed to back it up in an emergency.
According to Riverkeeper, “The regulations stem from a 1975 fire at one of the Browns Ferry reactors in Alabama that burned cables for both primary and backup systems and nearly triggered a meltdown.”
Mr. Lemanksi’s concerns were reinforced on March 16, 2004, when the NRC issued a report that noted an incident at Indian Point 2 had revealed the agency’s criteria for keeping power cables separate were not being met.
The NRC report states the event “might represent a significant degradation of plant safety.”
Steets said no problems have ever been found to confirm Lemanski’s belief that cable separation is problematic at the plants.
“Every cable is physically inspected,” Steets said. “We’re still doing that, and we’re encouraged so far.”
Sheehan said once the cable separation issue is satisfied, Indian Point’s green safety status will kick in fully. The plants will still be subjected to a “baseline level of inspections.”
“These inspections are significant,” he said.
All plants should aspire to a green safety rating, Sheehan said.
“This means they’re doing what we expect them to do,” he noted.
Too many unplanned shutdowns or workers being exposed to high levels of radiation are two examples of incidents that might result in the loss of a green rating. In the meantime, the utility will be responsible for regulating itself in some areas formerly handled in special inspections by NRC, and the regulatory agency is relying on Indian Point employees to come forward with complains, should any arise.
“At Indian Point, we see no reluctance on the part of workers to come to us,” Sheehan noted.
Steets said the public should “take comfort” from the green safety rating.
“The primary responsibility for operating plants safely rests with the utilities,” Steets said.
But some experts, like David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said NRC hasn’t been on top of serious accidents and incidents at other plants, Ohio’s Davis-Besse, for example.
Davis-Besse is a study in what can go wrong when a utility is left to inspect itself. When asked, Sheehan said Davis-Besse had a green safety rating while a reactor head slowly corroded over the course of several years.
“The Davis-Besse plant did have green inspection findings and performance indicators prior to the discovery of the corrosion on its reactor vessel head,” Sheehan said. “I would add, however, that there have been many lessons learned that have come out of the Davis-Besse experience that we have incorporated into our Reactor Oversight Process. We are constantly looking for ways to strengthen the program and believe that, on the whole, it paints an accurate picture of plant performance.”
On December 4, 2001, the NRC didn’t force the Davis-Besse plant to shut down, even temporarily, despite concerns about possible cracks of nozzles passing through the reactor lid. In February, the plant was shut down for routine refueling, and plant operators announced five cracks in the nozzles. A month later, NRC announced that acid had leaked from the nozzles to decay six inches of steel.
On January 3, 2003, the New York Times reported NRC’s Office of Inspector General found top agency safety officials delayed shutdown because it didn’t want to hurt the plant owner financially.
NRC had drafted a letter on November 16, 2001, requiring the 25-year-old Davis-Besse plant to shut down, but the Inspector General’s report said the “agency backed off when plant owner FirstEnergy Corporation said such a shutdown would be costly and could cause wintertime power shortages in northwest Ohio.”
According to the UCS, “less than two years after another similarly skipped inspection contributed to an accident at the Indian Point 2 nuclear plant, the NRC allowed Davis-Besse to skip the mandated 2001 year-end inspection.”
Steets and Sheehan claimed NRC inspections were “robust,” even when plants have a green safety rating, but UCS scoffed at the notion.
“The NRC must stop allowing plant owners to conduct fewer inspections and to defer inspections for economic reasons,” UCS wrote in a paper on Davis-Besse. “It would be a huge surprise for the NRC to someday put safety ahead of financial considerations. But that’s a far better surprise than the surprise from finding a gaping hole in a reactor vessel head. It’s a sure bet that there are nuclear power plants operating today with safety equipment degraded by aging. Will NRC surprise these gremlins or will they surprise NRC, again?”“