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SC nuclear plant draws federal scrutiny after atomic safety equipment sputters

Sammy Fretwell, The State  


    If a nuclear emergency had occurred earlier this year at the V.C. Summer atomic power plant, the facility would not have been able to rely on an important piece of equipment to help prevent an accident, federal regulators say.

    The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it will step up scrutiny of the Dominion Energy power plant after determining the utility failed to properly identify and correct problems with a backup diesel generator at V.C. Summer. The problems, which surfaced in January, went on for weeks before Dominion says they were resolved, records show.

    Backup diesel generators lower the risks of nuclear accidents when atomic energy plants lose power. Generators provide power until the main source of energy can be restored. Maintaining power at a nuclear plant is vital to keep parts of the facility from over-heating and releasing radiation into the community.

    In a letter last month to Dominion, the NRC said it was issuing a “white’ finding, an assessment of safety shortcomings at nuclear plants.

    White findings are not common. They represent moderate risks at a nuclear plant. The most common findings are in the green category, which is the least serious class of troubles at atomic energy plants. The most serious category is red, followed by yellow, white and green.

    The emergency diesel generator “would not have been available for use’’ if an accident occurred, the NRC said in an email to The State. The problem increased the risk that part of the plant “may not have had electrical power when needed under certain unlikely accidents,’’ a spokesman for the nuclear oversight agency said.

    NRC spokesman Dave Gasperson said the situation was not “inherently dangerous’’ but the diesel generator’s problems could have meant trouble if an accident had occurred. The agency said it disagreed with a Dominion assessment that the diesel generator was in good enough shape to provide power during a three week period last January and February.

    In response to questions from The State, Dominion said the public was never in danger. Troubleshooting by the nuclear plant corrected problems with equipment, the company said. The nuclear site now is evaluating the situation to make sure “equipment anomolies’’ are documented, company spokesman Darryl Huger said in the email.

    The V.C. Summer plant has another backup generator in addition to the one cited by the NRC — and Huger said that would have been enough to support the nuclear plant.

    Dave Lochbaum, a national expert on nuclear power and safety, said the white finding likely was given because the performance of backup diesel generators is so important at nuclear plants.

    “Diesel on the risk scale is pretty high,’’ he said. “If there had been the same problems identifying and fixing this with something less important, it probably would’’ not have generated the white finding. The good news is the problem was caught and is being resolved, he said.

    Lochbaum, who reviewed the NRC’s Oct. 18 letter to Dominion, said the problem appears to have been a dispute over how fast Dominion moved to resolve the issue after hiccups were found in the diesel generator.

    “If you find a problem, you are supposed to fix it,’’ he said. “In this case, tests found the problem, and the company didn’t handle it the way the NRC wanted it.’’

    The white finding is the fifth involving the V.C. Summer plant in the past 20 years, according to the NRC. It means the agency will increase scrutiny of the Summer plant with an additional inspection to make sure the problem is resolved and does not occur again.

    There also will be end of the year management reviews of the Summer plant’s performance. Dominion could be required to step up training or modify the plant, if necessary, Gasperson said. Gasperson said the NRC issued its finding after coming to the conclusion that the risk of having the backup generator out of action, as well as the potential for accidents, “created some increased risk to the plant.’’

    Located in Jenkinsville about 25 miles north of Columbia, the V.C. Summer plant is a key cog in Dominion’s mix of energy sources for South Carolina. The plant, which has a single nuclear reactor, was licensed for operation in 1982, and its license was renewed for 40 years in 2004.

    At one point, Dominion’s predecessor, SCE&G, had started construction on two additional reactors at Jenkinsville, but the multi-billion dollar project was beset with problems and the effort was abandoned before completion in 2017.

    ©2022 The State. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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