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Grand Gulf nuclear plant in Mississippi raises concerns about nuclear power 

Miss. plant raises concerns about nuclear power   EE News, Edward Klump and Kristi E. Swartz, E&E News reportersPublished: Wednesday, January 6, 2021  Chronic downtime at the largest single-unit U.S. nuclear power station is raising questions about the electric industry’s argument that aging reactors provide critical reliability and help decarbonize the grid.The Grand Gulf plant in Mississippi was at reduced or zero power about 74% of the time in 2020, daily reactor status reports show. The reasons included refueling, maintenance and unplanned outages at the aging 35-year-old plant.

That means Entergy Corp., which is the plant’s main owner, and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which operates the regional grid, often have to rely on other generation to fill the gap — possibly costing more and boosting greenhouse gas emissions if fossil fuel sources are tapped.

“The same rule applies to Grand Gulf as applies to coal, to gas, to any resource that we know we’re paying more for than we’re getting from,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy. “And the question is, who’s profiting from that, and who is being burdened by it?”

Experience at Grand Gulf suggests regulators and plant operators may need to consider new approaches and closer oversight of aging reactors, which face an uncertain future if they become too expensive to repair and maintain, observers say. This could have national implications as the electricity industry tries to transition away from fossil fuels and aims to rely more heavily on carbon emissions-free nuclear power.

The industry says nuclear plants are performing well broadly and companies are making investments to keep them operating. But Grand Gulf shows that a reactor that often goes offline can be expensive and undermine climate goals. An examination of New Orleans, for example, provided a snapshot in the past, estimating that a multiday unplanned outage at Grand Gulf in late 2018 resulted in higher costs of more than $1 million for New Orleans ratepayers, according to data from the city.

Aging and troubled nuclear reactors in competitive markets also occupy shaky ground because cheaper options like renewables have been able to undercut them economically, and there isn’t always a customer base to prop them up. Grand Gulf operates in a regulated territory, so it has protection, said Paul Patterson, a utility analyst with Glenrock Associates LLC. But he added that keeping plants alive isn’t a given.

“If the stars aren’t aligned politically to support these plants, it’s not going to happen,” he said………

Grand Gulf finished last among U.S. reactors at 68.8% capacity…….

At the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently questioned the site’s operators about mislabeling of waste tied to the plant. And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been reviewing complaints around Grand Gulf’s financial structure that could lead to a refund for customers……..

Nuclear reactors are designed to act as baseload power plants, which means they aren’t usually turned on and off frequently. It also takes time to take a nuclear plant offline, unless there’s an emergency that automatically trips the reactor for safety reasons.

But downtime at Grand Gulf has plagued the plant for years, as E&E News reported in 2018 (Energywire, Dec. 4, 2018). …….  its performance tanked in 2020, as it was at zero on about 39% of the days. This stemmed largely from the refueling and upgrades Entergy undertook — and issues that followed.

Safety concerns could lead to more time that Grand Gulf is not operating, according to observers.   Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists ticked off a list of statistics for Grand Gulf that he said concern him. The reactor is in Column 2 of the NRC’s so-called Action Matrix, meaning its performance has declined. It has a number of “green” or low-level safety issues that may trigger additional inspections and reviews, and it has a “white” finding, which is more severe.

“That’s showing a troubling trend in management and safety control,” said Lyman, nuclear power safety director at UCS…..

Lyman questioned whether there is stringent oversight by federal regulators of basic procedures such as replacing and maintaining equipment, following guidelines and continuing education. Management needs to follow through on overseeing maintenance activities, he said.

“All of these seem to be challenging the safety of the plant,” he said.

The NRC looks for so-called cross-cutting issues, which are something that affects most or all safety cornerstones. This is as broad as having a “safety conscious work environment” and can be as specific as human behavior and identifying and solving problems. But the agency has been under pressure to weaken its oversight, which means such patterns may be missed, Lyman said…….

Colby Cook, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Public Service Commission, said a directive last year authorized LPSC staff to initiate a complaint at FERC regarding Grand Gulf’s operations. He said the complaint hasn’t been filed yet. But it could involve other jurisdictions that have an interest in how the plant performs.

And regulators in various states are watching federal agencies for potential decisions related to Grand Gulf………

Lyman of USC acknowledged bipartisan support in Congress for nuclear power. He said it’s up to the Energy Department to promote nuclear as a climate solution, but said the reactors need to be running safely if that’s the case. This is where the NRC comes in.

“The people who you need to depend on to make sure the plants are running safely are not doing their jobs now,” Lyman said…….

Lyman called for a more detailed grading system at the NRC so the public has a better sense of safety problems. That could lead to public pressure on the staff and management at certain plants, which also are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m concerned generation with the operating reactor fleet especially when they are under economic pressure, especially now with COVID,” Lyman said……

Burke of the Alliance for Affordable Energy in Louisiana said she has no reason to be confident that Grand Gulf will have a great future performance. When the plant is offline, she said, Entergy and MISO likely depend on gas-fueled generation in the region. Burke also worried that new natural gas-fired units could be proposed to replace Grand Gulf at some point….

Burke said utilities and regulators need to plan with credible data.

“If we’re honest about what this plant is costing us all, then this plant shuts down and we finally get to plan for the future,” she said.

January 7, 2021 - Posted by | business and costs, politics, USA

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