NRC cites Pilgrim nuclear plant for multiple safety failures in shutdown

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Multiple failures of the control room staff at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station last spring sparked the power plant’s first emergency shutdown in years, according to a report released yesterday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which found that the problems were likely serious enough to warrant a rigorous year-long review of the plant’s safety procedures.

The report found that the plant’s control room operators failed to follow the right procedures as they began manipulating the control rods that block the nuclear reaction, to restart the reactor on May 10. This allowed the fuel rods, which contain enriched uranium, to boil water in the reactor, turning a turbine that generates electricity.

Entergy said the shutdown, or “scram,” was caused by control room operators’ errors. The plant was generating 4 percent of its capacity at the time of the scram.

The report placed blame on the company, saying that there were numerous factors that contributed to the human errors. They included inadequate enforcement of operating standards and ineffective operator training. The report cited Entergy for not adequately enforcing human error prevention techniques, such as peer checking and documenting activities during a reactor startup.

NRC noted that Entergy “suspended the qualifications” of the control room operators and shift manager who were directly involved.

“It’s rare for us to take this kind of action,’’ commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said. “It’s a job of tremendous responsibility to be in the control room. We expect them to perform at the very highest levels. If there’s a failure to do that, we expect the company to rectify that as soon as possible.’’


Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station is currently the only nuclear power plant operating in the United States Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is located in the Manomet section of Plymouth on Cape Cod Bay, south of the tip of Rocky Point and north of Priscilla Beach.

It was constructed by Bechtel, and is powered by a General Electric boiling water reactor and generator — a General Electric Mark I reactor of the same type and design as the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant.

Built at a cost of $231 million in 1972 by Boston Edison, it was sold in 1999 to the Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation, part of a complex deal that is the result of deregulation of the electrical utility industry.

On April 11, 1986 a recurring equipment problems force emergency shutdown of the plant. The resulting issue cost $1.001 billion.

Pilgrim keeps its spent nuclear fuel in an on-site storage pool, waiting for federal direction on the correct disposal process. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was being considered for this purpose until its deselection in 2009.

Pilgrim’s license to operate expires in 2012. An application for an extended operating license (until 2032) is under consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as of 2010.


Critics of nuclear power said federal regulators should view the safety failures as further evidence that the nation is relying on a potentially dangerous energy source.

Sheehan, the commission spokesperson, said it was unlikely that the findings would have an effect on whether the plant’s license is renewed next year.

The abrupt shutdown in May occurred as plant operators began restarting the reactor after a routine monthlong stoppage for maintenance and refueling.

“The inspection team determined that multiple factors contributed to this performance deficiency, including inadequate enforcement of operating standards, failure to follow procedures, and ineffective operator training,’’ according to the report.


Representative Edward J. Markey, a longtime critic of the nuclear industry, said the incident in Plymouth reflects a pattern of problems at nuclear plants around the world.

His office previously told the Globe that four control room operators had been suspended at the plant.

“The recent incidents at nuclear plants from Massachusetts to Virginia to Japan have shown that human error and hubris, or the unexpected power of nature, require constant vigilance and updated safety measures to protect Bay State residents and anyone else who lives near a nuclear facility across America,’’ he said in a statement.


The report blames Entergy Corp., the Louisiana-based company that has run the 39-year-old plant since 1999 and is seeking to renew its operating license, which expires next year.

“Entergy did not adequately enforce human error prevention techniques, such as procedural adherence, holding prejob briefs, self- and peer-checking, and proper documentation of activities during a reactor start-up,’’ according to the report.

Carol Wightman, a Pilgrim spokeswoman, said she could not recall the last time Pilgrim had such an automatic shutdown, which nuclear officials call a “scramming’’ incident, but she said, “It’s been years.’’

NRC officials said nuclear power plants in the United States experience on average about one scram every two years.

Mary Lampert, director of Pilgrim Watch, a Duxbury group that opposes the plant’s relicensing, said future human errors are her main concern.

Human error is what caused Three Mile Island and the accident in Chernobyl, and human error contributed to the explosions in Fukushima,’’ she said, referring to the reactor failures in Japan after the tsunami in March.

“The point is that human error is something that happens, and the best one can do to guard against it is to have rigorous training,’’ Lampert said. “It seems clear that the operators were not properly trained, and that’s a serious issue.’’

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