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“Significant” issues at Palisades plant resolved, but still a “long way to go"

Company officials who run the Palisades nuclear plant in southwest Michigan say they are improving the safety culture among workers that led to “significant” safety concerns last year. But at a meeting in South Haven Tuesday night, Palisades Site Vice President Tony Vitale said the plant has a “long way to go” to reach “operating excellence.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission upgraded Palisades’ safety rating last month from one of the worst in the country to the safest rating available. There are five ratings in the scale. The NRC shuts a plant down if it ends up in the poorest of the five ratings.

NRC Region 3 Administrator Chuck Casto said the plant has fixed the problems that led to the rating downgrade. But he still worries about equipment problems and the safety culture among workers.

“We know that (good safety culture) takes time to really sustain and really build. So during this next year we think it’s prudent to continue to look at the technical issues, the low-level technical issues and to assess the behaviors,” Casto said.

“We recognize that we are on a journey, we are on a journey to return Palisades to operational excellence,” Palisades VP Tony Vitale responded to Casto. “We have a long way to go and we’re up to the challenge.”

Entergy, the company that operates Palisades, says it is in the middle of a three-year plan to resolve lingering concerns.

Vitale notes they’ve replaced some people in key leadership positions, including a top engineer and the general manager of operations. He said that the new leadership team was building “cohesiveness” and “stability” among staff.

“You start with your safety related systems and your critical components and you build from there. And that’s what we’re doing,” Vitale said.

“When we set out vision and strategy and our wildly important goals it wasn’t a one year plan, it was a three year plan. And I think we’re on track for that three years,” Vitale said.

At this point, anti-nuclear activists playing a mock-up version of bingo interrupted, standing up, handing out Atomic FireBall candies after shouting “meltdown” (instead of “bingo”) during the public meeting.

The “B’Lingo” board was filled with technical terms commonly used at NRC meetings. Apparently Vitale’s utterance of “wildy important goals” completed a vertical row on the board. In the Beyond Nuclear organizations “B’Lingo” definitions, “wildy important goals” is “an odd phrase used repeatedly by Entergy executives” about the company’s three-year plan to improve the safety culture issues.  

A number of people demanded the NRC shut Palisades down after this year’s water leaks.

Kevin Flynn has a family cottage in Palisades Park, just a couple hundred yards away from the plant in Covert Township. Flynn, who’s president of the Palisades Park Association, told regulators he appreciates they petitioned for more inspection hours next year. But he still raised a number of questions and concerns about the leaks.

“They said the leak came from an area that they’re not used to and I think we’re in an area of uncharted waters with an old plant that’s embrittled,” Flynn said, “They don’t know where the next problem will occur and that’s a problem.” Entergy has to prove to regulators that its reactor vessel isn’t too embrittled to operate as a condition of its operating license by 2017.

Regulators say they are keeping a close eye on the plant next year, even though the safety rating was recently upgraded. They made a rare request for an extra 1,000 inspection-hours in 2013 to ensure lingering equipment problems are resolved. Casto said the extra hours will “allow (the NRC) to look broader across the plant and in more depth,” particularly during a refueling outage planned for the fall.

Casto says Palisades has “adequately” addressed the problems that led to the safety downgrade. He says a team of regulators, including officials from Washington, did anonymous focus group interviews with about 120 workers off site.

“I’ve chosen to go above and beyond the minimum on transparency and openness (about the issues at Palisades) because I know that the public is concerned here about the issues,” Casto said during a press conference before the meeting.

“(The public) makes us stronger,” Castro said of the NRC, “If we can’t defend what we’re doing we shouldn’t be in the business.”

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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