Click HERE to see Cape Cod’s Emergency Evacuation Plan
Pilgrim No. 1 in U.S. for shutdowns
By CHRISTINE LEGERE
October 27, 2013
PLYMOUTH — From broken water pumps, leaky valves and steaming pipes to elusive electrical problems, it’s been a tough year for Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.
Entergy, Pilgrim’s owner and operator, has poured $500 million into the 41-year-old plant since buying it from Boston Edison in 1999, yet mechanical problems and off-site power outages have forced the operation to shut down six times since January, making it No. 1 among the U.S. fleet of 100 commercial nuclear reactors for shutdowns this year.
Related Times stories on the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station
2013 Pilgrim shutdowns and glitches
Jan. 10-17: Both recirculation pumps tripped, followed by a head drain valve leak
Jan. 20-24: Leaking safety valve
Feb. 8-16: Winter storm, 169 hours down
Aug. 22-26: All three main water pumps shut down
Sept. 8-17: Steam pipe leak
Oct. 14-21: Off-site power to plant unavailable because of NStar problem, which caused initial shutdown. Plant remained closed for two days after power restored because of faulty mechanical pressure regulator, which caused water levels in the nuclear reactor to become too high.
July 15: Loss of control room alarms. Plant stayed online. Alarms came back on with no explanation. Reason for malfunction never found.
July 16: Heat wave warmed seawater temperatures, forcing the plant to power down to about 85 percent intermittently. Federal regulation required seawater, used for cooling the reactor, to be no warmer than 75 degrees.
Source: NRC website and Entergy press releases
Pilgrim has spent 79 days in shutdown since January, although company officials are quick to attribute 46 of those to planned refueling last spring.
Even when Pilgrim has been operating, the reactor has frequently been kept below peak level while workers address mechanical glitches. Between Aug. 22 and Sept. 21, for instance, the plant underwent two complete shutdowns and never reached peak power.
During July, a heat wave forced plant operators to frequently drop below peak levels because of the rising temperature of sea water used to cool the reactor. Federal regulations won’t allow use of seawater above 75 degrees.
Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, agreed in a recent interview that Pilgrim has had more than its share of problems.
“We’ve had our challenges with that facility this year,” Mohl said. “But we are very focused on improving that operation.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after a five-year review process, agreed to re-license the plant for another 20 years just 16 months ago, despite considerable outcry from anti-nuclear groups and local and state officials, including the governor and attorney general.
“The issue is that the NRC has never truly met a plant it didn’t like,” said Jeffrey Berger, a former longtime chairman of the Plymouth Nuclear Matters Committee. “Many people, including me, quite pointedly question whether the NRC is the guard dog over the industry that it’s supposed to be or simply the lapdog.”
Darrell Roberts, director of NRC’s Region I Division of Reactor Projects, in King of Prussia, Pa., countered that his agency did “an exhaustive review” of Pilgrim before granting Entergy a new license. “Pilgrim was the longest license renewal process of any plant,” Roberts said.
ENTERGY: PILGRIM IS FINE
The operation’s stuttering performance since its re-licensing, coupled with Entergy’s recently announced plan to shutter its Vermont Yankee nuclear plant for financial reasons, has caused some to wonder about Pilgrim’s future despite the decision by federal regulators to license it until 2032.
The plant’s frequent unplanned shutdowns since January, with four of those related to mechanical problems, will probably also affect its level of oversight, once the NRC finishes its review of third quarter performance records, expected to wrap up next month.
“Shutdowns like that would get our attention,” Roberts said.
More than three forced shutdowns in 7,000 operating hours (there are 8,200 hours in a year) will lower a plant’s “performance indicators.”
Pilgrim, now in a category that requires only standard oversight, may end up joining 22 other plants that must undergo more intense scrutiny.
Thomas Kauffman, spokesman for Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, an advocacy group for the nuclear industry, argues that Pilgrim has a good operating record. The plant’s three-year average for being at full operating level is 91 percent, Kauffman said, “several points higher than the U.S. nuclear fleet’s national average.”
Not surprisingly, Entergy officials also say Pilgrim is just fine, although a company spokeswoman refused discuss plant financial specifics.
“Pilgrim is about 10 percent larger than Vermont Yankee,” said Entergy spokeswoman Joyce McMahon in an email. “In addition, Pilgrim is located in a region of the electrical grid where there is a stronger and growing demand for electricity. Those two factors provide Pilgrim with a significant economic advantage over Vermont Yankee.”
In its announcement of Yankee’s planned closure, set for the end of 2014, Entergy cited the low price of natural gas, increasing cost of meeting federal standards, particularly for smaller single reactors, and maintenance costs as reasons to shutter the 41-year-old plant.
Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Vermont Yankee has performed at 90 percent capacity over the last three years, “a tad below Pilgrim.”
“It’s hard to believe that such minor differences yield a red light for Vermont Yankee and a green light for Pilgrim,” Lochbaum said. “At best, it would seem a yellow light for Pilgrim, cautioning about another premature retirement due to unfavorable economics.”
OPPONENT: ‘A DANGEROUS PERIOD’
Pilgrim has stirred up considerable public opposition over the years, particularly during the plant’s re-licensing process, as well as since then.
Residents of the Cape are concerned about the plant’s safety and the lack of an evacuation plan should there be an accident. That latter problem has prompted items such as T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “No Escape from the Cape” and “Cape Evacuation Plan: Swim East.”
Fourteen Cape towns, through town meeting or ballot votes, approved petitions last spring asking Gov. Deval Patrick, as the state’s top official, to call for Pilgrim’s closure because the safety of Cape residents can’t be guaranteed.
Barnstable, the final town to vote, will consider the petition on Nov. 5.
“We’ve been concerned over public safety, but the decision has always been in Entergy’s court on whether they operate or not,” said Diane Turco, a Harwich resident and founder of the Cape Downwinders, the group that penned the petitions. “It will probably close down over company profits, not public health and safety.”
Mary Lampert, a Duxbury resident and founder of Pilgrim Watch, has called Pilgrim “an antique.”
“The plant was built when leisure suits were in style,” Lampert said. “I think we’re in a particularly dangerous period with an old reactor and no investment. People are thinking, ‘Should I live here?'”
There is also some worry in the plant’s host town. “Every time I get a shutdown notice, it makes me more concerned about their operating system,” Plymouth Town Manager Melissa Arrighi said. “I think there’s a townwide desire they improve safety and security. Fukushima made us all sit back and say, ‘Do we have enough in place to protect our residents?'”
FIVE REACTORS CLOSING
Peter Friedman, a retired naval nuclear engineer and current chairman of the mechanical engineering department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said Pilgrim and other U.S. nuclear plants are strictly regulated and safely operated.
“People should realize that a statistical analysis of base-load power generators like coal, natural gas and hydroelectricity, nuclear power is by far the safest, and that includes accidents at Fukushima Dai-ichi, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl,” Friedman said.
None of glitches that caused Pilgrim’s shutdowns or power downs this year posed any risk to the public, he said.
Nuclear plants in the United States are staffed with personnel who are more highly trained than their counterparts at Fukushima, according to Friedman.
Meanwhile, five reactors are slated to close within the next year: Crystal River 3 in Florida, Kewaunee in Wisconsin, Vermont Yankee in Vermont and two reactors at San Onofre in California. Kewaunee and Yankee will close for financial reasons. San Onofre and Crystal River are closing because of mechanical problems that proved too expensive to repair.
All five are shutting down before their licenses were set to expire.
Lochbaum said it’s not uncommon for plants to close before the expiration of their licenses. “To date, about two dozen nuclear power reactors have been permanently closed in the U.S.,” Lochbaum said. “Only one (Big Rock Point) shut down at the end of its operating license period. All the rest shut down unexpectedly ahead of the license expiration date.”
Entergy’s Mohl remained vague when asked recently whether any consideration was being given to closing Pilgrim anytime soon.
While he said there were no current plans to shutter the plant, Mohl added, “We’re always looking at holding and optimizing an asset, selling it or shutting it down.”