Pilgrim Nuclear Plant Heads Toward More NRC Scrutiny

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer
Region I

This likely won’t come as a surprise to those who closely follow the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, but the NRC will be bumping up its level of oversight for the Plymouth, Mass., reactor.

pilgAt the conclusion of every quarter, U.S. nuclear power plant owners voluntarily provide the agency with data that determines if there will be any changes to the Performance Indicators for each facility. The indicators cover areas such as the number of unplanned shutdowns, emergency siren functionality and the effectiveness of radiological controls.

Based on the update of indicator data following the third quarter of 2013, Pilgrim saw its Performance Indicator for Unplanned Scrams (shutdowns) with Complications shift from “green” to “white.” This indicator tracks unplanned scrams that require additional operator actions and that are more risk-significant than uncomplicated shutdowns.

This adjustment resulted in the NRC notifying Entergy, the plant’s owner, that additional scrutiny would be applied to the site. More specifically, the facility moved from Licensee Response Column of the NRC’s Action Matrix – connoting normal oversight – to the Regulatory Response Column – signaling additional inspections by the agency.

Now, with the finalization of 2013 fourth-quarter data, another indicator for Pilgrim has also gone from “green” to “white.” In this case, the Performance Indicator for Unplanned Scrams per 7,000 Hours of Operation is affected. This indicator makes that transition if a plant experiences more than three unplanned shutdowns during that period of time.

This will lead to Pilgrim moving to the Degraded Cornerstone Column of the Action Matrix and result in still more inspections by the NRC. There will also be greater interaction between NRC senior managers and plant management to reach a better understanding of actions taken or planned to address the problems.

Two Performance Indicators related to an increased number of unplanned plant shutdowns over the past year crossed the green/white threshold and shows the company needs to focus greater attention on understanding why this trend is occurring. For the NRC’s part, we need to apply more resources to assess Entergy’s efforts to determine the root causes and to implement corrective actions. The NRC will also conduct its own independent evaluation of the root causes.

In March, the NRC will issue its Annual Assessment Letters for each plant. That letter for Pilgrim will reflect its current status and list inspections the agency will be carrying out in response to the indicator revisions. The letters will be available on the NRC web site.

Earth Scientists Help Assure Nuclear Safety

Britt Hill
Senior Advisor for Repository Science
The NRC is celebrating a bit late as Earth Science Week was disrupted by the government shutdown.
The NRC is celebrating a bit late as Earth Science Week was disrupted by the government shutdown.

Earth science is all around us – the NRC is no exception. For us, the foundations of nuclear safety rest on making sure a site has natural characteristics suitable for a nuclear facility. The geosphere (the soil, water, rock and atmosphere) at the site also must support the presence of a facility. At the same time, the surrounding environment must be protected from any impacts from the facility. And, of course, nuclear facilities are designed to be safe from natural hazards like hurricanes and earthquakes.

More than 100 earth scientists work at the NRC to make sure all of that happens.

Nuclear facilities are found in many different locations in the U.S., from the coastal plains of Florida to the oft-frozen shores of the Great Lakes and out to the deserts of Arizona. Each location has a unique set of natural conditions that must be understood by NRC earth scientists. To gain this understanding, NRC earth scientists gather information from field observations, laboratory tests and mathematical models. We use this information to help us figure out how geological and environmental systems work individually, and together as a natural system. Then, we can see if adding a nuclear facility to the natural system can be done safely and in a way that protects the environment.

We know the characteristics of Earth’s natural system have changed through time. The NRC’s earth scientists have to consider how the natural system might change in the next several decades, or longer.

For example, could the changes in climate patterns affect operation of a nuclear power plant? What size earthquakes might occur in the future, especially in areas that haven’t had many earthquakes in the last century? And with the effect human activity has already had on the environment, will a proposed facility add too many additional impacts? These and many other important questions must be answered confidently by NRC earth scientists, so safety and environmental protection is assured.

So, don’t be surprised to learn that in addition to all the nuclear engineers, NRC staff includes experts in environmental sciences like marine and terrestrial biology, wetlands ecology and pollution chemistry.

That’s in addition to the geological scientists who are experts in earthquake geology, surface-water flow, severe weather and soil stability, just to name a few. And don’t forget, NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane is also an earth scientist who once worked on the Himalayan Mountains! She talks about her experiences as an earth scientist on the NRC’s YouTube channel.

To learn more about what some other earth scientists do at the NRC, check out these NRC YouTube videos:

3 Minutes with an NRC Hydrologist

3 Minutes with an NRC Meteorologist

Regulating for Mother Nature: Earthquakes and the NRC

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