Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials had a clear message for Xcel Energy officials Monday night during a 2013 end-of-cycle assessment meeting involving the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant.
Regulators told the utility to reverse a recent trend of degraded performance at the 43-year-old plant.
Furthermore, the NRC’s regional administrator said the federal agency would insist upon “intensive and vigorous inspections.”
In early March, the NRC issued annual assessment letters to the nation’s 100 operating commercial nuclear power plants.
The NRC’s letter to Xcel mentioned a “substantive cross-cutting issue” in the area of human performance that affected multiple areas of operation.
During Monday night’s meeting the NRC asked Xcel to address that issue.
NRC attendees at Monday night’s two-hour meeting with Xcel Energy and the public at the Monticello Community Center included Cynthia Pederson, regional administrator, Kenneth O’Brien, deputy director, division of reactor projects, Kenneth Riemer, chief, Branch 2, division of reactor projects, Paul Zurawski, senior resident inspector, Patricia Voss, resident inspector, and Matthew Learn, a reactor engineer.
Xcel Energy key presenters included Tim O’Connor, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, Karen Fili, site vice president, Peter Gardner, director, Monticello site operations, Harlan Hanson, plant manager, and Mark Lingenfelter, site engineering director. All five addressed the NRC’s concerns Monday.
Last July, Xcel Energy completed a three-month refueling outage that included substantive plant modifications to support an extended power uprate to increase capacity to 671 megawatts.
The NRC identified numerous examples of human performance issues associated with inadequate contractor control, inadequate procedures or work instructions coupled with management decision making or oversight which eventually resulted in several findings of low safety significance.
Overall, the NRC found the Monticello facility operated safely last year.
For the first quarter of 2013, the NRC’s assessment of Monticello’s performance had the plant in Column 1, which means it received standard NRC oversight.
The plant moved to Column 3 in the second quarter of 2013, which resulted in increased inspection hours and oversight. This was due to a yellow finding of substantial safety significance involving the plant’s failure to have procedures in place to fully address effects of an external flooding scenario.
The NRC uses color-coded inspection findings and performance indicators to assess nuclear plant performance. The colors start with green and then increase to white, yellow, or red, as the safety significance of the issues involved increases.
NRC officials made it clear Monday Xcel had taken corrective actions to address the violation, but the yellow finding was the first in plant’s 43-year history.
This issue was identified as part of the NRC’s follow-up actions in response to the Fukushima reactor accident that occurred in Japan after a tsunami struck.
Performance indicators are statistical measurements of plant and equipment performance. Inspections are performed by two NRC residents assigned to the Monticello plant and by inspection specialists from the Region III Office in Lisle, Ill., and the agency’s headquarters in Rockville, Md.
During Monday’s meeting, Zurawski, the senior NRC resident inspector at Monticello, took the agency’s initial lead in presenting the nuclear plant’s 2013 assessment results.
“The response to the external flooding issue [scenario] is what put Monticello into Column 3,” Zurawski said, also reporting that from Jan. 1, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2013, the NRC’s direct baseline inspections totaled 2,500 hours at the Monticello plant.
Zurawski also explained he and Patricia Voss, the plant’s other resident inspector, would act to provide “front line response” at the plant if a classifiable event occurred.
According to Zurawski, during the flooding scenario that eventually prompted the yellow finding Xcel Energy had to prove it could respond and protect the plant within 12 days. “They took 26.5 days,” he said. “That drove the NRC’s response.”
Zurawski said a new protective berm wall is under construction the river side of the plant.
Pederson said in an earlier interview with the Monticello Times the NRC delegation had visited the plant Monday. During her initial remarks Monday, she directly addressed performance degradation.
“[Right now], Monticello is unique, but not in a good way from a performance standpoint,” Pederson told Xcel Energy. “Monticello is the only nuclear plant in the country that has a substantive cross-cutting issue. These are issues to us, and to you. There are areas that require change and performance improvement. We’ve seen your performance decline, but not to an unsafe level. But certainly, it’s an area that requires additional oversight. As performance degrades, our engagement increases.”
Pederson added: “We’ve seen too many instances of performance not being where it should at Monticello. We need to see [that trend] reversed. Monticello does not want to continue in this category of being unique. We expect you to make changes that will put you back within industry norms.”
Monticello was one of only nine plants nationwide to have an assessment that landed the plant in a “degraded cornerstone column,” the NRC also reported.
The plant was the only Region III nuclear station to be assigned a “substantive cross-cutting issue” in the area of human performance. Cross-cutting issues are issues that affect multiple areas of plant operation. Due to its decline in performance, Monticello will receive increased inspection and NRC oversight visits.
Future ramped-up inspections at the Monticello plant are designed to assure the NRC that Xcel Energy understands the causes of the outlined deficiencies.
Xcel will have to prove to the NRC it has identified corrective actions that will prevent a reoccurrence while the NRC evaluates safety culture improvements.
The NRC also addressed concerns with dry cask storage at the plant’s independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI). Currently, the Monticello plant has loaded 16 dry fuel storage canisters.
Last October, the NRC determined that weld tests were performed improperly on one canister. Subsequently, Xcel Energy identified five additional canisters with improper weld tests within the ISFSI and one inside the plant.
Learn, the NRC’s reactor engineer, said the federal agency is confident the casks are leak-tight because multiple additional tests were performed on the closure welds. The casks also are subject to radiation monitoring.
O’Connor, Xcel Energy’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, told the NRC that he Xcel Energy’s Board of Directors and the company’s CEO fully recognized and understood the gravity of the messages provided Monday by regulators. “We want to make sure we fix this once and for all,” O’Connor said. I think this yellow finding has caused us a great deal of reflection.”
Karen Fili, site vice president, said safety at Monticello is the utility’s No. 1 priority.
“We have made great progress in the last six months to protect the plant from a possible maximum probably flooding event,” Fili said.
Gardner, Monticello site operations director, said the yellow finding occurred because plant operators didn’t validate procedures. He said Xcel has shaved 2.5 days off the 12-day response time to a flooding scenario.
“We’ve learned from our [past] behaviors,” Gardner said. Pederson asked Gardner this question during her follow-up: “You folks saw the same accident [Fukushima] that we did,” she said. “Why didn’t you come to the same conclusions?”
Gardner replied Xcel Energy treated the flooding scenario as a “low consequence event” Pederson replied: “That’s certainly something we want you to explore.”
Hanson, plant manager, said Monday night Xcel was increasing its worker mentorship and oversight in response to the NRC’s assessment findings.
“We have an opportunity to improve every day,” Hanson said, adding plant managers were doing more direct observation and attending daily operational meetings. Xcel Energy also plans to improve its human performance decision making by increasing utility oversight of supplemental workers, improving safety performance while continuing to implement a working level safety committee.
“Initially, we wrote up 189 safety concerns, and as of two meetings ago, that figure was down to 64 concerns.” In providing the utility’s closing remarks Monday night, Fili said Xcel Energy’s continued focus moving forward had to remain on improving safety and human performance.
O’Connor added: “Nuclear utility industry standards should be higher than [any] regulator’s. “It’s not about replacing people. It’s about developing the ones that we already have.”
Tom Hoen, Xcel Energy media relations representative, estimated that about 95 percent of the people attending Monday’s meeting were plant personnel.
During Monday night’s question-and-answer session with NRC representatives, several Xcel Energy employees spoke about their on-site work experiences.
Kevin Nyberg is the Monticello plant’s current security manager. He left Monticello to work at another nuclear plant, but came back. “The primary reason that I came back to this location was the people,” he said. “The people here are quality people. They have pride in the facility and community that they call home.”
Nyberg agreed with the NRC’s assessment of the plant’s performance issues. “We all are feeling the heat and the pain of going through a learning process, but I’m not in the least bit inclined to leave, because I trust the people here at Monticello. I trust them with my life, and my family’s life,”
Nyberg told the NRC: “The people who work here understand our mission, which is the same as yours. We protect the health and safety of the public.” Nyberg reported the plant had reached a security milestone of 1.3 million person hours worked without an OSHA recordable injury.
“You don’t achieve that through luck,” he said. It’s done through safety conscious behaviors and attitudes. We’ll seek to understand from our shortcomings and learn from them. It’s who we are. We will be a better facility.”
Josh Ohotto is managing the site’s supplemental inspection response. He’s worked at the plant 13 years and lives within 12 miles of the plant.
“The NRC has identified some issues for us,” Ohotto said “We don’t take pride [in what the NRC has presented], but every person here is a problem-solver.”
Jason Kindred, plant and system engineering manager, has worked at the Monticello station 14 years.
“We have a lot of good stories to tell here in Monticello,” Kindred said. “When we compare ourselves against other industry boiling water reactors in the industry, we are No. 2 for our emergency diesel generator availability and maintenance, No. 2 in the industry for emergency injection systems and No. 5 for emergency core cooling. When we meet a challenge, we step up to it.”
Steve Mattson, maintenance manager, has worked at the plant 3 1/2 years but has 40 years of nuclear industry experience. Mattson said he came to Monticello because of its people, and because its a good running plant.
“We took a wrong step here and there; that’s the performance issues the NRC has talked about tonight,” Mattson told the NRC. “We’ve brought in a group of leaders to help get us back on the right track. I’m seeing improvements already,and confident in what we are putting in place right now. We have a solid plan here. All of my guys care about making this plant better. It’s what we are all about.”
Katherine Brandtjen, engineer, has worked at the Monticello plant six years. She said she’s seen improved communication, and an emphasis on safety culture.
After Monday night’s meeting, Fili said she hadn’t heard any surprises from the NRC during its presentation.
“What they said about our failure to implement our flooding procedure was accurate,” she said. “Our people are very committed to making these improvements at Monticello. We’re going to be here for the long run.”
Contact Tim Hennagir at email@example.com