Feds Say Entergy’s Arkansas Nuclear Reactors Need More Oversight

Entergy's Arkansas Nuclear One near Russellville
Credit www.entergy-nuclear.com

In an annual evaluation of the nation’s commercial nuclear plants, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Entergy Arkansas’ Nuclear One and Two units in Russellville were among three reactors that require increased oversight because of two safety findings of “substantial significance” in 2015.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued letters on March 4 to the nation’s 99 commercial operating nuclear plants about their performance in 2015. All but three plants were in the two highest performance categories, including the Entergy’s two-unit nuclear reactors located near Lake Dardanelle in Pope County.

“These assessment letters are the result of a holistic review of operating performance at each domestic power reactor facility,” Bill Dean, director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. “In addition to ensuring that the nation’s nuclear power plants are safe by inspecting them, the NRC continuously assesses performance. The purpose of these assessment letters is to ensure that all of our stakeholders clearly understand the basis for our assessments of plant performance and the actions we are taking to address any identified performance deficiencies.”

Michael Bowling, spokesman for Entergy Corp.’s nuclear operations, said the NRC’s annual assessment is not necessarily an updated report with new information but rather a culmination of 2015 activity.

“We take the NRC’s findings seriously, and we are dedicated to the safe and secure operation of Arkansas Nuclear One,” Bowling said in a response to Talk Business & Politics.

According to the NRC, of the 96 highest-performing reactors, 85 fully met all safety and security performance objectives. These reactors were inspected by the NRC using the normal “baseline” inspection program.

Eleven reactors need to resolve one or two items of low safety significance. For this performance level, regulatory oversight includes additional inspections and follow-up of corrective actions. Plants in this level are: Clinton (Illinois); Davis Besse (Ohio); Dresden 2 (Illinois); Duane Arnold (Iowa); Indian Point 3 (New York); Millstone 3 (Connecticut); Prairie Island 2 (Minnesota); River Bend (Louisiana); Sequoyah 1 (Tennessee); and Susquehanna 1 and 2 (Pennsylvania). Duane Arnold, Millstone 3, and Susquehanna 1 and 2 have resolved their issues since the reporting period ended and have transitioned to the highest performing level, NRC officials.

There were three reactors in the fourth performance category, or Column 4, including Entergy’s Arkansas Nuclear One and Two units in Russellville, and Entergy Corp.’s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass. Pilgrim is in the fourth performance Column 4 category because of long-standing issues of low-to-moderate safety significance, NRC officials said.

Nuclear reactors in Column 4 receive additional inspections and increased NRC management attention to confirm performance issues are being addressed. Later this year, the NRC will host a public meeting in the vicinity of each plant to discuss the details of the annual assessment results.

As noted by Bowling, the NRC routinely updates information on each plant’s current performance and posts the latest information as it becomes available to the action matrix summary. Every six months each plant receives either a mid-cycle or annual assessment letter along with an NRC inspection plan. The annual assessment letters sent to each operating reactor are also available at the NRC’s web page on the Reactor Oversight Process.

The issues relating to the Entergy nuclear reactors in Russellville stem back to the events surrounding the industrial accident that occurred at the plant on March 31, 2013, which resulted in one fatality and eight injured personnel. At the time of the event, Unit 1 was shut down in a refueling outage with the reactor vessel head off and fuel in the vessel. Beginning in 2013, Entergy Operations officials and the NRC began extensive inspections of the flood protection program at ANO.

All told, more than 100 previously unknown flood barrier deficiencies creating flooding pathways into the site’s two auxiliary buildings were found. These included defective floor seals, flooding barriers that were designed, but never installed, and seals that had deteriorated over time. In one case, a special hatch that was supposed to close a ventilation duct in the Unit 1 auxiliary building in the event of flooding had never been installed.

In June 2014, ANO Units 1 and 2 received yellow violations because electrical equipment damaged during an industrial incident increased risk to the plant. Workers were moving a 525-ton component out of the plant’s turbine building when a temporary lifting rig collapsed on March 13, 2013, damaging plant equipment. Those violations moved both units from Column 1 to Column 3 of the NRC’s Action Matrix, which the agency increases its oversight of plants as performance declines.

Bowling said the NRC placed Arkansas Nuclear One in Column 4 in March 2015 after issuing the two “yellow findings” for each nuclear unit related to the 2013 heavy equipment handling incident in which a lift operated by a contractor failed. Two subsequent yellow findings for Arkansas Nuclear One and Two related to flood barrier effectiveness had the cumulative effect of moving the plant to Column 4.

“Since the March 2013 lift failure and throughout the subsequent regulatory process, Entergy has paired our own team with industry experts and regulators alike to investigate and address the underlying causes and subsequent findings,” Bowling said. “All deficiencies have been addressed, and Entergy is ensuring all possible actions are taken to prevent similar conditions in the future.”

The Entergy spokesman said the company’s actions have not only improved the margin of safety at the utility giant’s operations in Arkansas but at all other Entergy nuclear facilities.

“Earlier this year, ANO notified the NRC of our readiness to conduct a … supplemental inspection to verify our progress,” he said. “We will continue to work with the NRC and other appropriate authorities to ensure all Entergy Nuclear plants meet all relevant regulations and standards.”

As noted by Bowling, the NRC sent a team of 28 inspectors to Russellville on two occasions in January and February from all four regional offices, the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, and the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, to conduct an inspection of Arkansas Nuclear One

A public exit meeting on the annual assessment for the Arkansas nuclear facility is scheduled for April 6, but a time and location are still to be determined, NRC officials said.

In a speech at last week’s 2016 Regulatory Information Conference in Bethesda, Md., NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran mentioned that he had made a recent visit to Arkansas Nuclear One and other nuclear plants across the country to see how licensees are implementing safety measures to respond to major natural disasters or other potential hazards.

Baran said the NRC remain focused on improving safety following the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan that was triggered by the Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011. On Monday (March 14), Japanese government officials said on the fifth anniversary of the nuclear accident that it will team up with U.S. and French nuclear experts to develop new technologies to collect melted fuel from crippled reactors.

“In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, the Commission set a goal of completing NRC’s response to the accident within five years,” Baran said. “Now that we’ve arrived at the five-year mark, I think it’s clear that we’ve made significant progress but still have a lot of work left to do.”

For its part, Entergy has responded to the increased regulatory scrutiny and increasing low margins for its nuclear power business by also opting to close two of its older nuclear plants on the East Coast. In the third quarter of last year, Entergy announced plans to close the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in New York in late 2016 or early 2017.

In early October, the utility giant said it will close the aging Pilgrim nuclear power plant by mid-2019, citing low power prices and shale development, regulatory challenges and government rules that don’t recognize the viability of nuclear power generation.

In addition, Entergy hired A. Christopher “Chris” Bakken III as its new chief nuclear officer in February, give him full executive oversight for operations of the utility giant’s nuclear fleet with locations in Arkansas, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Bakken replaced Jeff Forbes, who announced his retirement last year. As a member of the Office of the Chief Executive, Bakken will report to Leo Denault, chairman and CEO, and he will be based at Entergy’s nuclear headquarters in Jackson, Miss. In addition to overseeing the company’s nuclear plant operations, Bakken will also run the company’s management services to the Cooper Nuclear Station for the Nebraska Public Power District. Bakken will also be responsible for building and strengthening relationships with external stakeholders, while becoming an engaged company representative to the industry, Entergy said.