Keeping Millstone's 'bad' year in context

Pound for pound, the nuclear industry is the most closely regulated industry in the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has an annual budget of $1 billion and employs about 4,000 people to monitor 99 licensed reactors. Every nuclear plant has on-site inspectors. Millstone Power Station in Waterford, with two operating reactors, has three inspectors.

The nuclear power industry has an incentive to operate safely. Any industry executive will tell you the greatest threat to nuclear power’s future is a significant accident at a plant. Public opposition to extending the operation of existing plants would increase in the wake of a mishap, and the meager push for new plants — five plants collectively are under construction in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee — would evaporate. It has been about 20 years since a new reactor went online.

In fact, the U.S. nuclear industry, which had been building some momentum toward development of a next generation of plants, suffered a significant setback when a severe nuclear accident took place a world away — at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Nuclear utilities also have an incentive to maintain equipment because that is the way a plant can be kept operating and maximize profits. In the early 1970s, nuclear plants were operating at less than half their annual capacity. Refueling shutdowns were far longer and outages to address equipment problems more frequent. Today, the fleet of reactors, though older, operate at above 90 percent of capacity.

Could the desire to keep running discourage a plant operator from shutting down to address problems? Theoretically, yes, but the industry learned its lesson that any short-term gains in trying to push past problems are eclipsed when bigger issues arise and the heavy hand of the regulator is felt.

In the mid-1990s, Millstone, then operated by Northeast Utilities, became the example of how not to operate. An intimidating management approach at the nuclear station served to discourage plant personnel from speaking up about safety issues or technical problems. The priority became keeping inspectors in the dark and the reactors in operation.

When the NRC concluded this approach had seriously eroded safety margins, it came down hard, closing the Unit 1 reactor in November 1995 and the other two units in early 1996. Millstone 3 did not restart until the summer of 1998. Millstone 1 never resumed operations.

Now owned by Dominion Resources, Millstone suffered probably its worst year in 2014 since those bad-old days. NRC inspectors issued three “white” findings, meaning problems that created “a minimal reduction in safety margin.” It is a step below the all-good green rating. Under the NRC rating system, a yellow finding notes a problem causing a “moderate reduction in safety margin” and red “a significant reduction.”

Two of the white findings resulted from problems found with the operation of a back-up pump, part of the system at Millstone 3 that would cool the reactor if it lost primary cooling. The third white finding was associated with the unplanned shutdown of the two reactors last May.

Yet the degree of attention these minimal safety issues received should be more reassuring than cause for concern. NRC inspectors spent 9,150 hours at Millstone in 2014, including assessing the three violations and the corrective actions. Dominion paid $2.55 million to cover inspection costs, including nearly $536,000 directly related to the violations.

During a recent interview, Ho K. Nieh Jr., director of the Division of Reactor Projects in Region 1, said the NRC did not find any common root causes for the three violations. That there is apparently no systemic flaw in how Millstone engineers and management identify and address problems is good news. Mr. Nieh further assured us that Dominion operates a safety-conscious work environment at Millstone, with workers encouraged to raise concerns.

The high-ranking NRC official said inspectors found no correlation between the age of the plants and the problems. Millstone 2 celebrates its 40th anniversary in December, while Millstone 3 turned 29 this month.

Its performance going forward will determine whether Millstone simply had a bad year or safety margins are slipping. While diligence is in order, alarm is not.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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