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Pilgrim nuclear plant staff said to be ‘overwhelmed’

Plymouth, MA - 10/13/2015 - The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant as seen from the sea in Plymouth, MA, October 13, 2015. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant as seen from the sea in Plymouth, MA.

Staff at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station appear to be “overwhelmed” and struggling to improve performance at the facility, which has a poor safety record and is set to close in less than three years, according to an internal memo from a federal regulator made public on Tuesday.

The memo, authored by Donald Jackson of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, indicated that inspectors had found a “safety culture problem’’ during their ongoing review, along with problems with maintenance, engineering, and the reliability of equipment at the 44-year-old plant.

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Jackson’s memo was inadvertently sent to an environmental advocate, who forwarded the message to the Cape Cod Times. The newspaper posted the memo online Tuesday.

Jackson is leading a team of NRC investigators who began reviewing operations at the plant in November, as required by law because of the facility’s low safety rating. The power station is scheduled to close permanently in May 2019.

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“The plant seems overwhelmed by just trying to run the station,” Jackson wrote, adding that staff members are reportedly working to improve conditions at the site and there is “a lot of positive energy.”

However, he added, “no one seems to know what to do with it, to improve performance, leading to procedural noncompliances, poor maintenance, poor engineering practices, and equipment reliability problems.”

The review of the plant is ongoing.

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Patrick O’Brien, a spokesman for Entergy Corp., which owns the plant, said in a statement that the NRC review “is the next step in Pilgrim’s process toward a return to industry excellence. We have worked hard to address the issues that led to station performance decline and look forward to demonstrating to the NRC that we have made significant progress in these areas through the inspection process.”

The review comes after two separate shutdowns at the plant, in August and September, to address problems. During the August incident, staff halted operations to repair a main steam isolation valve, the NRC has said.

In September, the plant shut down due to a high water level in a regulating valve, and the company said at the time that public safety was never compromised during the incident.

Pilgrim’s reactor has a safety record that is among the three worst-performing plants in the country, according to the NRC.

A quarterly report issued in November by the agency cited multiple safety concerns, including an August incident in which the staff left open electrical cabinet doors during a five-hour test of a backup generator, which could have endangered the operation of key safety equipment had an earthquake taken place.

The NRC also found plant staff was unaware that parts of the radiation monitoring system were not working. But the NRC has also said that the findings in the November report and from prior quarterly reports had “very low safety significance.”

Jackson, in his memo, said investigations found that a circuit breaker transfer covering a wide variety of plant equipment was not properly screened, and that the “lugs used inside of the breakers were a different size, and should have been evaluated accordingly.”

‘The plant seems overwhelmed by just trying to run the station. . . . No one seems to know what to do with it, to improve performance.

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In addition, inspectors noted exhaust from a generator that did not appear to be properly protected, plant computer modifications that affected the heat balance calculation, and an inadequate response to a flooding issue in 2011. They also found problems with a generator gear box involved in oil leakage in September, and a separate, longstanding leakage issue, among other concerns.

The Pilgrim staff “seems to say the right things, and they are genuinely energized about improving,” Jackson wrote. “The corrective actions in the recovery plan seem to have been hastily developed and implemented, and some have been circumvented as they were deemed too hard to complete. We are observing current indications of a safety culture problem that a bunch of talking probably won’t fix.”

Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, said Wednesday in a statement that Jackson’s internal memo was “inadvertently sent to a member of the public on Tuesday morning.”

Sheehan said the memo contains “preliminary — and we would emphasize preliminary — observations from the team inspection we currently have underway at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant. . . . [T]o what extent, if any, these observations factor into our final determinations on Entergy’s progress in improving the plant’s performance would be difficult, if not impossible, to predict at this point.”

He said NRC inspectors “continuously evaluate plant safety as issues are identified and Pilgrim remains safe based on what we have seen thus far.”

Jackson’s team will have 45 days after the inspection formally ends to document their findings, and the agency expects to issue a public report in late winter or early spring, according to Sheehan.

“In the meantime, information on the progress of our review is considered ‘pre-decisional’ and therefore we will not have any further comment at this time regarding it,” Sheehan wrote.

Mary Lampert, head of the advocacy group PilgrimWatch and a longtime critic of the power station, said Wednesday in a phone interview that Jackson’s memo shows Entergy has “mismanaged the plant” at the expense of public safety.

“The consequences are so dire if something goes wrong,” Lampert said. “It needs to be closed today.

David Abel, John R. Ellement, and Andy Rosen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
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