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Safety problems at Fort Calhoun nuclear plant

The Saturday Night Live Approach to Nuclear Safety: More Cowbell! Dave Lochbaum, director, Nuclear Safety Project, 15 Sep 15  The April 8, 2000, Saturday Night Live broadcast featured a skit with cast members pretending to be the rock group Blue Oyster Cult in the recording studio with a famous music producer, played by actor Christopher Walken. The skit is remembered for Walken’s character stating “I gotta have more cowbell.”

The NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) needs more cowbell, too.

The Fort Calhoun nuclear plant shut down in April 2011 for a refueling outage. The outage was planned to last a handful of weeks while workers replaced spent fuel assemblies with new assemblies and performed routine maintenance and testing activities. The plan went awry when the ROP identified safety problems that needed to be corrected before the reactor could be restarted.

The operators restarted Fort Calhoun in December 2013 after a short refueling outage morphed into a 32-month safety restoration outage. On March 30, 2015, the NRCannounced that it was returning Fort Calhoun to normal handling under the ROP. The NRC also reported expending over 60,000 hours since December 2011 on inspection, assessment and licensing tasks at Fort Calhoun.

60,000 hours is a number without context. To help put this value in context, the NRCreported having expended 6,652 hours, 6,612 hours, and 6,782 hours of total oversight effort at the average nuclear plant in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively. So the average nuclear plant received an average of 6,682 hours of oversight from the NRC annually.

Between 2012 and 2014, Fort Calhoun received an average of 18,462 hours of oversight effort each year from the NRC.

Thus, Fort Calhoun received the equivalent of 2.76 nuclear plants’ worth of regulatory oversight attention from the NRC between 2012 and 2014……

The problems that kept Fort Calhoun shut down for 32 months were not introduced in 2009 and 2010 after the NRC returned Fort Calhoun to Column 1—they existed all along. Yet the NRC’s ROP missed them all. The ROP missed every single one of them, until after the first quarter of 2011. After that time, finding safety problems was like shooting fish in a barrel—NRC inspectors could hardly turn around without finding yet another safety problem that had to be fixed prior to restart.

So how could more cowbell improve nuclear plant safety?

Rather than expending so much time and effort ensuring that the barn door has been closed, safety would be better served by noticing that it’s open sooner. Cowbells should have sounded long before the first quarter of 2011.

UCS’s fact sheet documented many safety problems that existed at Fort Calhoun for years before the ROP’s inception in 2000. Two of the safety problems involved the emergency diesel generators (EDGs).

EDGs are among the most safety significant components at the plant. Consequently, they receive considerable oversight attention by the NRC. Yet that attention failed to identify either of these two problems that had existed since at least 1990.

And it was not just one miss or even two misses by one NRC inspector—it was a lot of misses by a lot of NRC inspectors over a lot of years. A search of ADAMS, the NRC’s online digital library, identified 39 inspections conducted at Fort Calhoun by the NRC between 2000 and 2010 inclusive that included some oversight of the EDGs.

Something is fundamentally wrong with safety inspections of highly safety significant components that fail to notice safety problems. Finding safety problems isn’t one of the reasons for conducting the safety inspections—it’s the only reason for doing them.

And yet many safety problems remained undetected until 2011 when it took an army of workers more than two years to correct them all.

Our Takeaway

Fort Calhoun is not an isolated case. It marked the 52nd time that a U.S. reactor had to remain shut down longer than a year while safety problems were corrected. The majority of these year-plus outages involved a myriad of safety problems that had existed for months and sometimes years before being noticed.

And yet many safety problems remained undetected until 2011 when it took an army of workers more than two years to correct them all…….

September 18, 2015 - Posted by | safety, USA

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