A closer look at Palisades and its version of “safe nuclear energy”
This is the second edition in a series on “Clean Safe Nuclear Energy.” The previous post looked at why its proponents almost always attach the words “clean” and “safe” when talking about nuclear energy. It discussed why we tend not to question the terms. It argued in general that nuclear energy is neither clean nor safe. It looked at some of the issues that indicate that the operation at Palisades is not safe nuclear energy.
This edition explains how Palisades’ past performance and present condition show that it’s not safe.
Palisades’ embrittled reactor pressure vessel means Palisades is not safe nuclear energy.
A reactor pressure vessel (RPV) is a thick steel shell that keeps the nuclear reaction contained – keeps it from going public. Nuclear particles have been bombarding Palisades’ shell from the inside for 44 years. This bombardment has made the shell brittle. In a July 2015 report republished by Beyond Nuclear, David Lochbaum of Union of Concerned Scientists had this to say about how brittle – how likely to crack – the shell at Palisades is (emphasis added):
Embrittlement is the issue that compelled the owners of the Yankee Rowe nuclear plant to permanently shut it down in September 1991.
Palisades has the least embrittlement margin of any U.S. nuclear power reactor vessel. And it would not be allowed to operate if the standards applied to Yankee Rowe were applied to Palisades. The NRC worked behind the scenes with the nuclear industry to revise the standards and now – magically – Palisades has ample margin.
I interpret “the least embrittlement margin” to mean “the highest likelihood of cracking.” By the way, Yankee Rowe’s decommissioning came when the plant was 32 years old. Did I mention that Palisades is 44 years old? Its license renewal says it can keep going until it’s 60 years old.
Embrittlement matters, big-time. We learned in seventh-grade science class that changes in temperature and pressure will cause metals to expand and contract and will cause glass to break. Forty-four years of nuclear bombardment has changed the steel that protects the public from the nuclear reaction. The steel has become less like steel and more like glass. In his article on embrittlement, metallurgy expert Hiromitsu Ino warns:
Destruction of a reactor pressure vessel due to neutron irradiation embrittlement should be called an extreme severe accident. If the pressure vessel breaks, there is almost no way of preventing a runaway chain reaction. Such extreme damage must be avoided at all costs.
Redefining safe nuclear energy
The NRC’s mission is to make sure the nation’s nuclear plants meet safety standards so they can keep producing “clean safe nuclear energy.” NRC officials seem to have learned that one way to do this is by changing the standards. To repeat what David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned scientists said about embrittlement at Palisades, “The NRC worked behind the scenes with the nuclear industry to revise the standards and now – magically – Palisades has ample margin.” Kevin Kamps, Radioactive Waste Watchdog with Beyond Nuclear and founding board member of the Kalamazoo Chapter of Don’t Waste Michigan, calls this “pencil-whipping” the problem – rolling back the regulations, rewriting the safety specs, so the NRC can assure us that our plants meet the standards for “safe nuclear energy.”
Here’s what Lochbaum and Kamps are talking about: So it could renew the license that lets Palisades keep going, NRC “updated” its safety standard for embrittlement. Per this “update,” actual physical testing of RPV embrittlement at Palisades is not needed. Computer modelling and mathematical extrapolation based on history at Palisades and other plants is good enough. Plus, it’s easier and cheaper to do. Plus, Palisades can meet this “updated safety standard” standing on its head with one hand tied behind its back. Even though experts, including NRC officials, agree that the RPV at Palisades is either one of the most embrittled or the most embrittled in the U.S.
Why RPV embrittlement means Palisades is not “safe nuclear energy”
Pressurized thermal shock (PTS) is one of the things that can make a reactor pressure vessel crack. PTS is what happens when the shell is subjected to “combined stresses from a rapid temperature and/or pressure change.” One cause of PTS is rapid cooling within the shell, as when a nuclear reaction starts to overheat and needs to be quickly cooled by dumping in more water. One of the problems that can cause the core to overheat is a defective cooling system. The “cold leg” (see illustration, adapted from this explanation of how a nuclear reactor works) of the cooling system at Palisades has eight welds that, apparently, have never been inspected.
Let me repeat that. The cooling system at Palisades has eight welds that, apparently, have never been inspected. Did I mention that Palisades is 44 years old?
I say “apparently” because I’m not confident that I understand the acronyms and technical terms in any Nuclear Regulatory Commission document. What I’ve gathered is this: In April 2014, it occurred to an inspector that maybe these eight welds ought to be checked. This inspection would require a shutdown. During the two shutdowns since April 2014, these welds were not inspected. Why not? Get this. No procedure had ever been established for inspection and repair of these 44-year-old welds. This is what makes me think they’ve never been inspected.
11:00 AM – Introductions
11:05 AM – Licensee Presentation
- Steam Generator Design and Inspections
- C-Star Analysis Bases
- Technical Specification Changes
11:40 AM – Discussion
11:50 AM – Public Comments
12:00 PM – Adjourn
On Monday, January 25, at 11:00 AM, the NRC will hold a public hearing by conference call. (If you visit the “Meeting Details” page, you may wonder about the NRC definition of the word “details.”) If you click the “Meeting Info” link, you’ll learn that “the public is invited to observe this meeting and will have one or more opportunities to communicate with the NRC after the business portion of the meeting but before the meeting is adjourned.” Scrolling to the bottom, you will find the meeting’s agenda. You can also see the agenda in the box on the right. We get ten minutes.
You can attend this meeting by phone. It’s a toll-free call. Shortly before 11:00 AM on Monday, January 25, call 1-800-857-0537. You will be asked for a passcode. It is 32988.
(Afterwards, I will add an update here.)
What if something goes wrong?
Every nuclear plant in the U.S. has an evacuation plan. It’s required. Creating the plan can cost a million or so. It has to map out travel routes, consider air currents and population and the severity of the “incident.” (They don’t call them accidents. Clean safe nuclear energy can’t have accidents.)
If you live near a nuclear plant, do you know your evacuation plan? Do you know how you’ll find out when an evacuation becomes necessary? Do you know how much warning you’ll have? Do you know what you’ll need to grab, what you’ll have to leave behind, where you’ll go? The Palisades evacuation plan is a 28-page booklet. Do you have yours?
If Palisades has a serious accident, one of the airborne contaminants will be the radioactive isotope iodine-131. It causes thyroid cancer. Potassium iodide (KI) pills taken shortly before exposure to iodine-131 will prevent thyroid cancer. The pills won’t work after you’re exposed. (KI pills have already been delivered door to door – free – in Toronto.) The American Thyroid Association strongly recommends that residents within 50 miles of a nuclear plant should have a free supply of KI pills on hand – provided by the plant, another cost that can add up to millions, depending on population.
Right now, Michigan considers the danger zone to be only ten miles, and you have to take a voucher to a pickup point to get your free pills. Are you in the 10-mile radius? The 50-mile radius? Do you have your pills and your instructions? Beyond Nuclear has launched a public-information campaign and a crusade to get the pills delivered to every household in a 50-mile danger zone.
Palisades had a “near miss” in 2012 due to cooling system problems.
Lochbaum at Union of Concerned Scientists reported on recurring reactor cooling water leaks at Palisades in his report on the 2012 near miss:
The near-miss at the Palisades plant, in which cooling water leakage was allowed to continue for nearly a month, even though the leak was in an area where NRC regulations require the plant to be shut down within six hours, points to an ongoing problem: the NRC routinely allows violations of this type to go unpenalized, thus “enabling poor decision-making by plant owners.”
The same article lists eleven other nuclear plants that had near misses in 2012. In 2011, when UCS started keeping its near-miss list, Palisades had two of the fifteen near misses that UCS found. One of these also involved the cooling system.
When a pump used to provide cooling water to emergency equipment failed in September 2009 because of stress corrosion cracking of recently installed parts, workers replaced the parts with identical parts. The replacement parts failed again in 2011, disabling one of three pumps.
Palisades has more safety problems than its “recurring” cooling system issues.
The other 2011 near miss at Palisades:
Workers troubleshooting faulty indicator lights showing the position of the emergency airlock door inadvertently shut off power to roughly half the instruments and controls in the main control room. The loss of control power triggered the automatic shutdown of the reactor and complicated operators’ response.
I leave it to you to decide what this incident says about procedures and training at Palisades.
Noting that “the problems started early,” MLive reviewed Palisades performance through 2012.
But that was then. How is Palisades doing on safe nuclear energy today?
JULY 8: Kalamazoo’s WWMT TV Channel 3 reports that “several” security officers are on paid leave as Palisades investigates “anomalies” – more specifically, falsified reporting. Following up on an anonymous tip from a Palisades employee, WWMT learned that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is “closely monitoring the plant’s investigation as well as the plant’s response to the situation.” When a WWMT reporter asked why the public had not been notified of the investigation, an NRC spokesperson “said the commission had no obligation to notify media.”
JULY 14: “Several” turns out to be 22 security staffers on paid administrative leave – including the anonymous tipster – as the remaining guards work 75-hour weeks. The FBI is now involved in the investigation, according to this report from Beyond Nuclear.
JULY 18: According to a WWMT Channel 3 update, “Palisades officials first became aware of the fire tour anomalies in early June.” NRC officials failed to mention this investigation in their June 23 Palisades review.
AUGUST 10: WWMT Channel 3 says the security officers’ union at Palisades will file a grievance if its officers face discipline. The grievance will cite “no set guidelines” and a lack of training. A Palisades spokesperson says “most” of the officers on paid leave have returned to work.
AUGUST 11: News Talk Radio 94.9 WSJM in Benton Harbor has learned that Entergy Vice President Anthony Vitale, who’s been in charge at Palisades since 2011, has been transferred to a different Entergy nuclear plant. The new chief, Charles Arnone, has twice been in charge of safety assurance at Palisades.
SEPTEMBER 20: Maybe false, inaccurate, and delayed reporting is standard procedure for Entergy. An Entergy report correcting a false report was also false, according to Ed Bradley, Plymouth, Massachusets, Fire Chief. Bradley said that several other communications from Entergy about “odd events” at its Pilgrim nuclear plant also have been late, false, or both. Last May, Entergy was charged with submitting false reports about its Vermont Yankee plant. Here in Southwest Michigan, the investigation into false reporting at Entergy’s Palisades plant, which began in early June, was not mentioned during a June 23 NRC Palisades review. It remained unreported to the public until July 8 when a whistleblower approached WWMT Channel 3 in Kalamazoo.
DECEMBER 8: Entergy says Palisades will close permanently October 1, 2018. According to a news release Thursday morning, December 8, from Entergy, corporate owner-operator of Palisades Nuclear Plant near Covert and South Haven in Van Buren County, Michigan, the plant will close on October 1, 2018. MLive published Entergy’s news release and followed up with a more detailed report. WOOD-TV 8 reported that Palisades’ only customer, Consumers Energy, “reached an agreement with Entergy Corporation to end its contract to purchase power from the Palisades nuclear plant earlier than expected.” The purchase agreement was originally planned to last through 2022. In 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Palisades a license renewal that allowed the 45-year-old, dangerously embrittled plant to operate until 2031. Blog post: What to watch for.
Kevin Kamps has compiled a much more complete and technically detailed report that covers issues at Palisades from its very early history to its plans three years into the future.
In the middle of last year, UCS reported on an NRC “Reactor Oversight Process” conducted in the Fall of 2014, based on 20 nuclear safety issues. “The NRC selected the 20 components based upon their safety significance. The NRC deliberately selected components making the highest contribution to safety levels. Palisades failed on 10 of them.” The ten violations for Palisades, on twenty safety issues, was by far the worst record among the sixteen plants included in the study. The two plants that tied for second-worst each had seven violations. The average was 3.6 – which in itself says a lot about “safe nuclear energy” in general. What does it say when Palisades had by far the worst record of all – nearly triple the average? To me, this doesn’t say “safe nuclear energy.”
Last April, after the NRC lowered Palisades’ safety rating, Palisades promised to “increase transparency and public outreach.” Two months earlier Palisades had convinced the NRC that its “chilled work environment” was no longer a problem. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Labor ordered Palisades to reinstate, with back pay, two employees who were fired after bringing up their concerns. Kevin Kamps issued a press release that explained some of the causes of the “chilled work environment.” The release pointed out that several other employees fired for the same reasons are also seeking reinstatement. MLive reports:
But there is no timeline for the return to work of Chris Mikusko and Rolland Ruby, said Scott Allen, Director for Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor.
“This statute does not have a preliminary reinstatement order so they will not return to work until the final appeal is finished…and the judge agrees with…OSHA,” Allen said.
In a nutshell:
- Palisades has a history of safety problems
- Palisades has had “recurring” problems with its cooling system, which has eight 44-year-old welds that seem never to have been inspected.
- Cooling system problems can cause cracking in the shell that protects the public from the nuclear reaction, especially if the shell – the RPV – is brittle.
- Palisades has the most embrittled RPV in the U.S.
- Palisades management gets upset with employees who point out problems.
How can we call this “safe nuclear energy”?