Nuclear One earns worst rating

Entergy’s Russellville plant in line for intense inspections

Arkansas Nuclear One has the worst performance rating out of all 100 nuclear power plants in the country, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission says.

The power plant is the only one in the country in the "column four" category of the commission's rating of overall plant performance. The column four designation means the plant gets the highest level of inspection oversight from the commission.

Column one power plants require the fewest inspections. Plants in column five aren't permitted to operate, the commission said.

It is rare for a plant to be in column four, said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the commission.

"Sometimes there are one or even two plants in column four," Dricks said. "It generally takes several years of very concerted effort on the part of a nuclear power plant operator to address issues and then be returned to column one."

No nuclear plant has ever been placed in column five, Dricks said.

Representatives from the NRC and Entergy Arkansas will discuss the plant's "significant decline in performance" at a meeting Tuesday in Russellville. The plant's two nuclear reactors account for about 61 percent of the electricity that Entergy Arkansas generates in a year.

The public meeting at Lakepoint Conference Center, 61 Lake Point Lane near the nuclear plant, begins at 6 p.m.

Arkansas Nuclear One has received two findings of "substantial safety significance" that pushed its performance rating down into column four.

The first was filed in June last year in connection with the March 2013 handling of a 1 million-pound turbine stator, which fell 30 feet while it was being moved by a contractor, killing of one worker and injuring eight others. The accident occurred in a non-nuclear part of the plant.

The second finding, filed in January, is related to the 2013 accident. It involved Entergy's failure to design, construct and maintain the seals that protect safety-related equipment in the emergency diesel fuel storage building from flooding.

When the stator fell, it damaged a water main, Dricks said.

"The fire pump started and discharged thousands of gallons of water into the turbine building," Dricks said. "There are floor seals that should prevent the water from flowing down into an auxiliary building. But the seals were defective, so water flowed into areas where it shouldn't have been."

Commission inspectors later discovered there were more than 100 unsealed conduits that allowed the water into the auxiliary building, Dricks said.

"They also found some degraded hatches," Dricks said.

The cumulative effect of these two violations moved the plant into column four, the commission said.

Of the 100 commercial nuclear power plants in the country, 94 are in the top two performance categories, the commission said. Of those, 75 fully meet all safety and security performance standards.

Generally, every nuclear plant in the country gets 6,600 man-hours of inspections a year, Dricks said.

"Last year, Arkansas Nuclear One had 9,100 hours of inspections," Dricks said. "And it will get more inspections in the future now."

Three full-time inspectors at Arkansas Nuclear One each complete about 2,000 hours of inspections in a year. The remaining hours were completed last year by dozens of specialists from the commission's regional office and headquarters, Dricks said.

Tuesday's meeting will address future inspections, Dricks said.

"In further detail, [at the meeting] we will look at a review of performance in several strategic areas," Dricks said. "This is intended to provide additional assurance of safety. We will also look at the safety culture at the plant."

The corrective actions that the plant has made since the accident have increased its margin of safety, said Jeremy Browning, site vice president of Arkansas Nuclear One.

"It is incumbent on Entergy to understand what led us [to the accident]," Browning said. "It's the NRC's responsibility to come in and validate that we have not just corrected the very specific issues and those causes but also the issues that may have led up to [the accident]."

The process to understand what caused those problems is a comprehensive self-assessment of Arkansas Nuclear One's performance over the past five to seven years, Browning said.

There will be physical changes at the plant, but about 75 percent of what will happen is a change in cultural behavior, Browning said.

The fact that Arkansas Nuclear One is under such strict oversight because of safety-related problems is "a cause for legitimate concern," said David Cruthirds, a Houston-based regulatory attorney.

"An objective assessment would indicate that this is a serious matter," Cruthirds said. "I don't think the NRC acts hastily or without basis in situations like this. They actually have a reputation for sometimes being more tolerant or more friendly to the industry than some people would like."

Through the end of 2014, the total cost of the March 2013 accident, including the cost of assessment, restoration of off-site power, site restoration, debris removal and replacement of damaged property and equipment, was about $95 million, Entergy Corp. said in its annual federal financial filing in February.

The additional inspections by the federal commission are expected to increase Entergy's costs, it said in the filing.

Entergy has collected $50 million in insurance coverage, but is seeking to recover more under its insurance policy, it said.

If Entergy wants to pass some of the accident expense on to ratepayers, it would have to seek approval from the Arkansas Public Service Commission.

"To the degree that they have been found either negligent or imprudent, then I think the commission would have grounds to disallow some of those costs," Cruthirds said. "Entergy would be expected to make the argument to blame [the accident] on the contractor."

Browning declined to comment on the possibility of Entergy seeking to recover some of the costs of the accident from ratepayers.

Ted Thomas, chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, also declined to discuss whether ratepayers would have to pay for repair work related to the accident.

Entergy Arkansas has about 700,000 customers in 63 counties in the state.

SundayMonday Business on 05/10/2015

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