Nuclear Near-Miss at Pilgrim

, director, Nuclear Safety Project | May 29, 2015, 12:40 pm EST
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This post is a part of a series on Near Misses at U.S. Nuclear Power Plants

On January 27, 2015, Winter Storm Juno knocked out both of the 345,000 volt transmission lines connecting the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth.  Per design, the reactor automatically shut down when the second offsite power line was lost. When equipment problems and operator errors complicated the intended response, the NRC dispatched a special inspection team to the site to investigate what happened (and didn’t happen).

The plant’s owner submitted a written report to the NRC about the automatic shut down and ensuing complications on April 1, 2015.

The NRC’s report by the special inspection team was issued on May 27, 2015. It provides a timeline for major actions during the days it took to restore power to the plant.

Pilgrim fig 1

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UCS developed a slideshow based on the NRC’s report. The slideshow ends by describing the eight violations of safety regulations identified by the NRC’s special inspection team. Those concluding slides are shown below.

Our Takeaway

Pilgrim’s owner cannot control the weather. Hence, Winter Storm June and the loss of power it caused at Pilgrim is not the owner’s fault.

But Pilgrim’s owner can – and must – control whether the equipment and workers can respond to challenges to successfully mitigate the event.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

This event revealed too many inexcusable problems at Pilgrim. For example, the operators restarted the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling (RCIC) system, but failed to open the valve supplying cooling water to the system’s components. It’s the second step in the procedure, but the operators failed to follow it and open the valve. And the control room received two separate alarms indicating that the valve alignment might be wrong, but the operators responding to the alarms did not notice that the cooling water valve was closed. And as the slideshow details, poor operator performance caused the RCIC system to be automatically turned off, necessitating their flawed restart attempt.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

This is not the first time in recent history where the operators at Pilgrim responded poorly. Fission Stories #59 described an attempted restart of the reactor in May 2011 from a refueling outage. They flubbed basic, routine steps so badly that the reactor essentially tilted – shutting itself down before the bad-acting operators inflicted any more harm.

The NRC must compel this plant’s owner to significantly improve the performance capability of the operators at Pilgrim. Their performance is way, way below the industry average. Somebody has to be the worst performer by definition. But it’s past time for somebody else to be the worst.

 

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  • Well, hopefully they will clean up their act. But to put this into some perspective, have you read any of the FAA reports detailing less than optimal operations for all of the airlines and their near misses? It’s an imperfect world. Airline crashes kill thousands …annually, usually from operator error. I’m unaware of any nuclear power plant fatality related to radiation release in the United States in a half century of operation.

    • Greg

      Direct human fatalities aren’t that likely when a nuclear plant loses containment, but contamination can render thousands of square miles un inhabitable, and cause increased death rates due to cancer.
      Sloppy maintenance and/or errors in one industry does not excuse the same in another industry.
      The Russians thought they had a good handle on Chernobyl.
      They provided an object lesson and worst case scenario we should never forget.

      • Direct human fatalities aren’t that likely when a nuclear plant loses containment but contamination can render thousands of square miles uninhabitable

        Let me reframe the above:

        “In over half of a century of nuclear energy production around the entire planet earth, only once did an accident convert land that had been usurped by human industry and agriculture back to nature. And it took a primitive Soviet reactor optimized for weapons production that didn’t even have a containment dome to accomplish that.”

        The Tar Creek Superfund site covers roughly the same area as the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and it isn’t the largest Superfund site. Most of those displaced by the tsunami ravaged Fukushima plant have, are free to, or will soon be free to, return.

        ….and cause increased death rates due to cancer.

        Again, only Chernobyl caused cancer rates to increase, killing an estimated 4,000 people. The coal plants in Germany kill that many people every year. Not saying Chernobyl was a good thing. But it wasn’t as bad as expected, or as bad as all of the misinformation says it was. We will never know how much cancer rates would have increased had the land not been evacuated (also true for any Superfund site), and although the wildlife there lives with higher than normal radiation, it’s better than being in close contact with humans.

        Sloppy maintenance and/or errors in one industry does not excuse the same in another industry.

        I think you missed my point. There is no equivalent to “All Things Nuclear” for the aviation industry because it is not necessary, and would be, like “All
        Things Nuclear,” disruptive of progress and counterproductive.

        The Russians thought they had a good handle on Chernobyl.

        You made that up.

        They provided an object lesson and worst case scenario we should never forget.

        Agreed. This worst case scenario resulted in a total death toll similar to Germany’s annual coal deaths and an order of magnitude smaller than our own annual car deaths, while inadvertently creating Europe’s largest wildlife preserve.

        • Greg

          {The Russians thought they had a good handle on Chernobyl.}

          “You made that up.”

          So you don’t believe the Russians were confident that Chernobyl as safe?

          That huge nature preserve as you would call it extends into several neighboring countries.

          How many of these nature preserves would it take to make an entire smaller country unlivable.

          From a recent Washington post article

          1. The Fukushima disaster itself is far from being over

          Although about 6,000 employees have returned to the Daiichi power plant to work there daily, its ruins still pose a significant threat. Nuclear radiation remains dangerous in and around the destroyed reactors. Villages in its proximity will remain a no-go zone for inhabitants for an unpredictably long time.

          The nuclear power plant itself is far from being secured: Its owner TEPCO has so far been unable to remove hundreds of fuel rods stored nearby because the 2011 earthquake destabilized or destroyed large parts of the buildings. Furthermore, radiation continues to contaminate underground water.”

          • So you don’t believe the Russians were confident that Chernobyl as safe?

            I said you made that up. The onus is on your to provide readers with a link verifying the level of confidence the Soviet Union had in the safety of containment dome free reactors hastily built to maximize weapons production to close or maintain a perceived missile gap.

            That huge nature preserve as you would call it extends into several neighboring countries.

            As I would call it? It has officially been designated a wildlife preserve. Read Radioactive Wolves!

            How many of these nature preserves would it take to make an entire smaller country unlivable.

            You tell me. And I’m not particularly interested in exchanging opposing quotes cut and pasted from the internet.

          • Greg

            The Russians let themselves in for the Chernobyl accident by placing too much confidence in their own engineering skills, said Prof. Joseph Nye of the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., and a former State Department nuclear negotiator.

            “We used to argue with them about the risks of running a nuclear plant without a containment structure to hold in a possible radiation leak,” Nye said in an interview. “They assured us their engineering was so precise that a containment shield was just a needless barrier. They had a technological optimism that just made us marvel.”

            “Read Radioactive Wolves

            You said it I didn’t. Not very good for your argument now is it.
            From a World Health organization report.

            In Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine nearly 5 000 cases of thyroid cancer have now been diagnosed to date among children who were aged up to 18 years at the time of the accident.”

            “Currently about five million people live in areas of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine with levels of radioactive caesium deposition more than 37 kBq/m2 1 . Among them, about 270 000 people continue to live in areas classified by Soviet authorities as strictly controlled zones (SCZs), where radioactive caesium contamination exceeds 555 kBq/m2.


            There are several studies on increased cancer rates in the contaminated regions.

          • “They assured us their engineering was so precise that a containment shield was just a needless barrier. They had a technological optimism that just made us marvel.” You said it I didn’t. Not very good for your argument now is it.

            I can just imagine a Soviet diplomat thirty years ago admitting to foreigners that the safety of containment dome free reactors hastily built to maximize weapons production to close or maintain a perceived missile gap were of shoddy construction and dangerous, assuming he would even know. I hope you didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time searching the internet for a thirty year-old quote to support what you made up. But more importantly, what was your point when you said it?

            In Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine nearly 5 000 cases of thyroid cancer

            It’s been just short of thirty years since that accident. This certainly is not new information. The thyroid cases have been well documented. Again, do you have a point?

            There are several studies on increased cancer rates in the contaminated regions.

            Who is arguing that people should move back into the Chernobyl superfund site? The official studies have not shown an increase in cancer rates other than the highly curable thyroid cancers found long ago. This is the internet. You need to provide URL links to your studies so readers can verify and assess the quality of your sources. And again, do you have a point?

            It just occurred to me that you may not know much about how long it can take for a cancer to develop.

            You need to read a book called “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” It’s a good read, about 550 pages long but you would learn a great deal about cancer. I certainly did.

            When a friend had his thyroid removed it was ten years after he had worked for a short time at a nuclear power plant, decontaminating protective masks and other gear.

            Scientists use statistics to ferret out increases in cancer rates. It has been shown again and again that workers at nuclear plants do not have higher cancer rates. You should know better that to use a single case as evidence that it was caused by a nuclear power plant.

            Theres no upside to the contamination of tens of thousands of square miles of fertile land and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people

            You’re creating a string of strawman arguments. Chernobyl was thirty years ago. There are no more reactors without containment domes. The accident did not contaminate ” tens of thousands of square miles of fertile land.” Although Chernobyl was the only real disaster in the half century of nuclear power plants, and it’s a shame that it happened, but it did have some upsides:

            1) Greatly improved safety and reactor designs.
            2) Creation of Europe’s largest nature preserve.
            3) Evidence showing that even an accident of this scale does not result in any meaningful increase in mutation rates or cancers.

          • Greg

            “.” Although Chernobyl was the only real disaster in the half century of nuclear power plants,”
            Fukishima.
            It took about ten seconds to find that quote, if you’d had your eyes and ears open during the Cold War you’d have already known just how over confident the Soviets were.
            A containment dome won’t be much help if a major earthquake cracks it.
            I take it you have no qualms about building a nuclear power plant in Pakistan at a site known to be vulnerable to tsunamis?
            They say if you ignore history you are doomed to repeat it.
            Who knows maybe turning most of California into a permanent exclusion zone would be a good thing in the long run, it would make for the plot gimmick in the next Kurt Russel/ Snake Pliskin escape from movie.
            BTW
            You you think that the Russians removed all that topsoil in order to build a tennis court?

          • Although Chernobyl was the only real disaster in the half century of nuclear power plants — Fukishima.

            The disaster was the mag 9.0 quake and tsunami that killed roughly 20,000 people. The Fukushima reactor was just another piece of infrastructure destroyed by that act of God. It didn’t kill anyone. So, if your definition of disaster is death and injury, Fukushima wasn’t a disaster.

            If your definition of disaster is great expense, then the energiewende is a disaster because it’s cost to German citizens would pay for clean up of Fukushima in less than five years $105 / 24 = 4.4.

            If your definition is displacement, then compare those living in temporary government housing in Japan to any refugee camp across the planet, or even the millions of people who have to move their families every year to keep a job and on and on.

            Fukushima isn’t the disaster the media and anti-nuclear activists want/need it to be. It’s an expensive mess caused by a gargantuan tsunami.

            A containment dome won’t be much help if a major earthquake cracks it.

            Earthquakes don’t crack containment domes. You don’t get worse than a mag 9.0 and none of Japan’s containment domes were fazed. Only one power station lost its ability to cool its automatically shut down reactor cores. The Fukushima mess is an example of what a mag 9.0 earthquake and 30 meter high tsunami can do (in this case thanks to warnings to move generators to higher ground not being heeded in time).

            I take it you have no qualms about building a nuclear power plant in Pakistan at a site known to be vulnerable to tsunamis?

            That’s a good point about using nuclear in unstable, third world economies, where the odds of creating a Fukushima sized mess is higher, but not good enough to keep nuclear energy out of the global energy mix in general because renewables can’t do it all. To be honest, this is all pretty academic to me. I see no evidence that humanity can slow climate change.

            They say if you ignore history you are doomed to repeat it.

            That analogy might be applicable to something like the reunification of Germany, but this is a technological issue. Nobody ignores airline or nuclear accidents. They always teach lessons on how to improve designs/procedures.

            Who knows maybe turning most of California into a permanent exclusion zone

            …it has a name; radiophobia, not too different from arachnophobia. How can the only powerplant in California possibly turn most of California into an exclusion zone? Have you already dismissed all that we have discussed about the difference between a Soviet era weapons factory and Fukushima? A Fukushima scale nuclear power accident in California could result in a similar expensive mess that would take a number of years to clean up, no cancers, no deaths. It isn’t possible to have a Chernobyl style disaster without a Chernobyl style design, but even a Chernobyl scale disaster would convert less than one percent of California into a hands-off wildlife preserve and would likely cause no fatalities at all. And after half of a century of operation, what are the odds?

            The Chernobyl power plant was staffed and continued to produce power with its remaining reactors for 14 years after the accident.

            Take a look at this EPA list of Superfund sites in California.

            You you think that the Russians removed all that topsoil in order to build a tennis court?

            Russians removed topsoil somewhere?

          • Greg

            “If your definition is displacement, then compare those living in temporary government housing in Japan to any refugee camp across the planet,”

            So whats a few hundred thousand more, the more the merrier.

            The earthquake that began the tsunami was a 9.0 with epicenter 70 kilometers out to sea.

            There were many aftershocks with one 7.7 quake with epicenter inland.

            Contrary to popular belief a 9.0 is not the highest a quake can register. There have been quakes in Alaska and South American and other regions that exceeded 9.0.

            “While the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant had operated safely since 1971, an earthquake and tsunami well beyond the design basis resulted in failure of AC power, backup generators and batteries which defeated all safety systems. These systems were necessary to keep the fuel cool after the reactor had been shut down. This resulted in partial or complete meltdown of fuel rods, damage to fuel storage pools and buildings, release of radioactive debris to surrounding area, air and sea, and resorting to the expedient use of fire engines and concrete pumps to deliver cooling water to spent fuel pools and containment. The containment was breached from a hydrogen gas explosion. The fuel cladding around the rods heated up, releasing hydrogen gas which built up inside the reactor, without being vented.”

            California is on the San Andreas Faultline, and has had many quakes of over 7.0 Yellow stone is atop a Super Volcano, my home is near the New Madrid faultline.

            You may be filled with confidence that no earthquake could possibly breech a containment dome. I hope you aren’t put in charge of where to build any new reactors.

            Awhile back someone tried to argue that Mustard gas was not all that deadly because only a small percentage of those exposed to it during WW2 died. They failed to take into account that soldiers in the field were equiped with gas masks and various methods of protecting exposed flesh. two minutes exposure for an unprotected person is almost certainly fatal.

            Rapid evacuation has prevented many deaths in the past, many Russians gave their lives buying time for others to escape.

            And the Soviets removed a great deal of contaminated topsoil around Chernobyl.

            “Meanwhile, every bluefin tuna caught in the waters off California in a Stanford University study was found to be contaminated with cesium-137, a radioactive poison emitted on a large scale by Fukushima. The tuna migrate from off Japan to California waters. Daniel Madigan, who led the study, commented:

            “The tuna packaged it up [the radiation] and brought it across the world’s largest ocean. We were definitely surprised to see it at all and even more surprised to see it in every one we measured.”

            “Already an excessive number of cases of thyroid cancers have appeared in Japan, an early sign of the impacts of radioactivity. A study last year by Joseph Mangano and Dr. Janette Sherman of the Radiation and Public Health Project, and Dr. Chris Busby, determined that radioactive iodine fall-out from Fukushima damaged the thyroid glands of children in California.

            BTW
            Heres how strong those containment domes can be.
            The Crystal River plant
            “When workers began to cut the access hole for the steam generators, a crack formed. That crack was repaired, but more cracks appeared. Engineers noticed that parts of the concrete had delaminated. This was repaired, and the concrete re-tensioned, but the same problem was found in other areas. The plant had originally been due to restart in April 2011 following the uprate, but in June 2011 Progress Energy said that it did not expect it to restart until 2014. “

          • So whats a few hundred thousand more [displaced people], the more the merrier.

            Let me put that remark into perspective. There are over 50 million souls living in refugee camps across this planet. Compare that to the 84,000 nuclear accident refugees. That’s about equal to the number of people who are displaced by two Big Ten universities every year:

            In October 2013, about 84,000 evacuees received the payments. Statistics indicate that an average family of four has received about JPY 90 million ($900,000) in compensation from Tepco. The average compensation for real estate was JPY 49.1 million ($490,000), JPY 10.9 million ($110,000) for lost wages, and JPY 30 million ($300,000) as “consolation money” for pain and suffering. (Asahi Shimbun 26/10/13)Another reported contrast from the Reconstruction Agency is that some $30 billion has been paid to 84,000 nuclear accident refugees but only some $20 billion to 300,000 tsunami survivors in the Tohoku region.

            Greg continues:

            Contrary to popular belief a 9.0 is not the highest a quake can register. There have been quakes in Alaska and South American and other regions that exceeded 9.0.

            The 2011 magnitude 9 earthquake was the biggest ever to hit Japan. Every last reactor shut down as designed. Not a single containment dome was compromised. The three Fukushima cores melted from latent heat after shut down from a lack of coolant water.

            The containment was breached from a hydrogen gas explosion. The fuel cladding around the rods heated up, releasing hydrogen gas which built up inside the reactor, without being vented.

            Pretty misleading to use the word “breached” to describe an operator initiated release of steam from the containment dome. The hydrogen released from the pressure dome into the structure above the dome ignited, causing a hydrogen explosion in the sheet metal structure above the containment dome. The dome was unfazed by this explosion.

            California is on the San Andreas Faultline, and has had many quakes of over 7.0 Yellow stone is atop a Super Volcano, my home is near the New Madrid faultline.

            That isn’t a secret. Containment domes designed for earthquakes …survive earthquakes. Your home (or mine for that matter) may not survive a big one. And the eruption of a super volcano tends to produce a lot of ash, not so much quaking. The resulting ash plume that would encircle the earth would greatly reduce solar power, and likely force the shutdown of wind when ash is falling.

            You may be filled with confidence that no earthquake could possibly breech a containment dome. I hope you aren’t put in charge of where to build any new reactors.

            And I hope you are not put in charge of anything to do with energy policy. Like I said before, Fukushima has shown us that three simultaneously melted reactor cores won’t kill anyone and the cleanup cost is roughly what Germany is paying for renewable energy in less than four years.

            … many Russians gave their lives buying time for others to escape.

            … the drama. To be more accurate, about 40 deaths were directly attributable to the Chernobyl disaster. Compare that to this list of aircraft accidents that killed at least 50 people.

            And the Soviets removed a great deal of contaminated topsoil around Chernobyl.

            …I didn’t get your point the first time you said that, and I still don’t.

            “Meanwhile, every bluefin tuna caught in the waters off California in a Stanford University study was found to be contaminated with cesium-137, a radioactive poison emitted on a large scale by Fukushima.

            From NPR:

            If you are still worried about the cesium from Fukushima, Robert Emery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston says you’d need to eat 2.5 to 4 tons of tuna in a year to get a dose of cesium-137 that exceeds health limits. That’s a lot of sushi.

            And why didn’t you bother looking for the truth on the internet?

            Already an excessive number of cases of thyroid cancers have appeared in Japan, an early sign of the impacts of radioactivity.

            That also isn’t true. But the real question is … why do people in the age of the internet make no attempt at all to find the truth when it’s right there. That’s a rhetorical question. Obviously, most people use the internet to confirm what they want to believe or creationism would have gone away long ago. From Shameful “Study” Claims Fukushima Radiation Affected US Babies:

            I’m disgusted. I’ve seen a level of dishonesty and scientific misinformation so grotesque, I don’t even know what to say. Such is the case with a recent “study” from the Radiation and Public Health Project. It is so dishonest in its claims it really makes me wonder about the pathology of those who are behind it.

            And this:

            Thyroid Cancer Rates Lower in Fukushima Children Than Other Regions

            BTW Heres how strong those containment domes can be. When workers began to cut the access hole for the steam generators, a crack formed. That crack was repaired, but more cracks appeared.

            All power plants and all airliners develop cracks in various components as they age but but that does not make them dangerous because inspection programs find and repair them before they become large enough to be of concern. The same is true for bridges, dams, skyscrapers, and on and on.

  • Sean McCarthy

    It is the same all over the industry. The people that started when nuclear power was born are for the most part retiring. The industry brings in younger blood that ca read procedures. One cannot read themselves into experience or intelligence.

    • You are confusing engineers who design them and construction firms that build them with those who operate them. Young blood airline pilots soon become experienced pilots. It doesn’t matter how many pilots retire, and those who staff nuclear power plants are every bit as intelligent as you or I.