Cassandra type warnings miss the issue of safety significance
In a breathless press release issued early this morning (08/29/11), Rep. Ed Markey, D- Mass., claims that U.S. nuclear reactors impacted by hurricane Irene had a far rougher time that reported in the news media.
What’s important is that none of the information items in the NRC Event Report indicate that the safety of the reactors was compromised in any way. There were no injuries to plant personnel and no radioactive releases.
There are two points I’d like to make before turning to an expert’s review of Markey’s release. It appears the NRC gave Markey’s office an early look at the event report from its private stock of information before it was posted on the agency’s website. How else would he have gotten the press release out so fast. This is flat out cheesy work. All federal agencies leak like sieves. NRC just happens to push a little harder for Ed Markey.
There’s another problem with the NRC’s report, and that is that PR offices for the affected reactors never mentioned these reports to the NRC that took place throughout the weekend. And that comes after they were constantly providing updates via Twitter and Facebook. As for the NRC itself, why did it wait until Monday to release this information?
What’s safety significant and what’s not?
My friend and colleague John Bickel, Ph.D, (left) a nuclear engineer with nearly four decades of experience in nuclear plant operations, and an internationally recognized expert on safety, told me in an email today that Markey’s press release misses the mark on the issue of “safety significance.”
In the paragraphs that follow I’ll list the claim in Markey’s press release and Bickel’s comments. Bickel gave me permission to quote his email here. Also, these are his personal comments distinct from his work for any of his consulting clients.
Markey: Calvert Cliffs Unit 1 (MD) nuclear reactor shut down automatically after a large piece of metal siding blew off a building and contacted high energy lines associated with a main transformer. One of its emergency diesel generators was found to be inoperable due to flooding of its circuitry, and 66 out of 73 emergency sirens at the plant were out of service.
Image right – a 388 ton electrical transformer being delivered to an Illinois nuclear power plant Nov 2010.
Bickel: Hurricane Irene when it passed north of Calvert Cliffs caused a Unit 1 trip. It did not cause a loss of offsite power. Diesel power was not required.
Editor Note: Here’s what the utility actually reported to the NRC.
"At 2248 on 8/27/2011, the Unit 1 Reactor experienced an automatic trip due to loss of load. This trip occurred due to a phase to phase short on the main generator output step-up transformer that resulted from a large section of turbine building siding breaking loose in high winds from Hurricane Irene and impacting the transformer. This impact resulted in an explosion (briefly until the trip removed power from the impact area) which met emergency action level declaration criteria A.U.6.2.2, 'Unanticipated explosion within Protected Area resulting in visible damage to permanent structures or equipment.' The Unusual Event was declared at 2302, 8/27/2011. Follow-up investigation determined no fire resulted from the explosion.”
Bickel: Diesel Inoperable: I'd like clarification on whether this was a "technicality" or whether the diesel actually failed to start or shutdown after it had started. There is a big difference.
Editor Note: In fact, had Markey read and understood the NRC event report on the diesel, he would have seen that it started just fine, but the power of the hurricane pushed water into the exhaust port causing it to shut down. None of the other diesel generators were similarly affected by the storm.
Markey: The power at Millstone Units 2 and 3 nuclear reactors (CT) was reduced as a precaution, the spent fuel pool at the decommissioning Unit 1 lost power for its cooling system, and Unit 3 lost one of six water circulation pumps.
Bickel: What was the time reach boiling in the Millstone 1 SFP? Its been shut down for years and heat loads from old fuel would be such that it would require days to weeks to reach temperatures which would be of concern.
Circ Water pumps at Millstone 3 are not safety related. They are for the condenser cooling. In many storms where there is kelp and seaweed buildup - one technique is to reduce net circ water intake to reduce flows through the strainers as a preventive measure.
Editor Note: Millstone isn’t listed in the NRC event report for 8/26-29/2011. Where did Markey get his information?Update 08/30/11: The NRC said in an email response . . .
"Due to the storm, the NRC Operations Center provided special updates on Hurricane Irene to keep NRC management apprised of the status of reactors in the Hurricane’s path over the weekend. We in turn kept our Congressional oversight committees informed about the status of these facilities. The information was based on what our resident inspectors at the plants told us and as such was not fully vetted. The information about the spent fuel pool at Millstone did not rise to the level as a reportable event and had no safety significance."
Markey: 49 of the 172 emergency sirens at the Indian Point nuclear power plant (NY) and 74 of 113 emergency sirens at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant (MA) had to be placed on backup battery power
And from Indian Point, Entergy, this note . . .
"All of IPEC’s 172 sirens are operational. 51 of 172 are utilizing battery back-up power as designed. Entergy has crews who can recharge or replace batteries should they drain, however we have firsthand experience following a severe ice-storm last year that demonstrates batteries can remain charged for several days and in some cases a week to keep sirens operational and in service. The batteries actually demonstrate how well prepared IPEC is and the redundancy built into its various systems."
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So there you have it. Mr. Markey got his early release of information from the NRC but utterly failed to address the safety significance of the information. You can’t run a nation on conjecture and the same goes for evaluating the performance of nuclear power plants.
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