Joe Pollock: Inside the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant

Joe Pollock is the vice president of operations at the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y. Located just 35 miles from Times Square, the nuclear power plant is ensnared in a relicensing battle with critics questioning the plant’s safety and whether evacuation routes are sufficient in the case of an emergency. Pollock insists that Indian Point is safe — his company has invested billions in upgrades — and that it’s an environmental and economic boon for the local community. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 1, 2011. Editors’ note: Pollock is now working as a “loaned employee” at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

… Take me through this plant. …  It’s 40 years old. Is it good for another 20?

Absolutely. I had the opportunity to be involved in construction of two similar units and had to climb through all of it, watch them pour the concrete, was involved in the welding, know the precautions, the testing, the inspections that took place when they built it, and know very well that we’ve built in quite a bit of margin above what we were required to put in there.

We did it back in engineering when we did calculations, [and] margins weren’t scrimped on. … So I’m very comfortable. We’ve basically rebuilt this plant over the time we’ve been operating, and Entergy spent over a billion dollars in improvements.

Basically what we’ve done is we’ve replaced all the components, rebuilt the components, renewed them and test them continuously. It’s not like this has been sitting here for 40 years and now I’m going to do maintenance on [it]. We’ve invested [in] this over the years and continue to invest over $100 million a year in capital improvements to make sure we keep it running.

When you bought it, it was a bit of a distressed property?

The capacity factors when we bought it were down in the 60 percent [range]. We continually run now in the high 90 percents. The only way you can do that is operate safely, and the equipment has got to be reliable.

“We employ 1,100 employees here, pay $75 million in taxes. In fact, if you look at our life extension, if we operated 20 more years, just the union labor would earn over $1.3 billion in earnings at today’s salary.”

To get from 60 percent production to 90 percent, what did you have to do?

Invest the money I talked about into the equipment. … Also continue training our workers and bringing them into a fleet mentality that we had with Entergy, as a nuclear fleet operator; to use the experiences we had gained in our other plants to improve our performance here.

How does this plant compare to other plants Entergy runs, and for that matter, that you’ve been familiar with?

It compares right up in the top of it. If you look at our performance, routinely we’ve been in the top performers from a capacity factor.

If you look at our performance from the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] for the past three years, we’ve been judged to be a top performance, operating safely [with] no additional oversight.

Sixty years seems like a long time to run a plant, and I’ve even heard some people say maybe we can go 80 years at some of these plants. Do you take a position on that yet?

No, we haven’t. We’re working on 20 years.

When the plants were designed and built for the 40-year life cycle, it was believed that the reactor vessel was the limiting condition. So at that time when we built them, we put specimens in the vessel that we could take out every 10 years and measure the impacts and the influence from the neutrons from radioactivity.

What we found out [was the impact] was far less than what we had done in our calculations. So that’s how it came about that we looked out and [said] we could extend the life of these plants, at least from a reactor standpoint, and then be able to do the maintenance and the life extension on the other equipment that was part of it.

So the vessels themselves are holding up better than anticipated.

Absolutely.

Is it the concrete that might be the limiting factor?

No, I don’t see that as a limiting factor. We’ll have to continue monitoring the vessels. I would say that is probably the most limiting factor.

We replaced our steam generators, which are the large components in there. We’re replacing reactor heads. The only thing we haven’t replaced is the reactor vessel, so that would be the limiting component we’ll continue to monitor. …

People are concerned when they think about a plant running as long as that. I guess what you’re saying is it really isn’t 60 years old. Is that the way to look at it?

Well, it’s not 40 years old, and a lot of the equipment in here is not 10 years old as you go through.

We do total teardowns and rebuilds on engines. Our emergency diesel generators I believe you got to see on your tour. We do complete teardowns and inspections over there every refueling outage.

We test them once a month. They have to start within 10 seconds without failure and be able to load up and be available. But the realities are, they don’t run.

It’s like starting your car you have in the garage once a month to make sure it starts. Then what we do is after two years, we’ll go in there and tear it apart and inspect it to make sure everything’s OK, and then we’ll go do an endurance run on it. So then we’ll go take that long drive to make sure it’s going to work.

This is a contentious license renewal, the most contentious — I think we can agree on — of all that have come up. Why?

We’re in a metropolitan area. When the plant was built back in the ’60s — because Unit 1 was actually commercial in 1961 — there was people who didn’t want it here then. It’s the great part about America. You get to voice your opinion, whether you’re for something or against something.

But we are a valuable asset to the community here in many ways: in the air quality, in the electricity we produce that has an impact on the economy, that if we were to go away, [it would] probably cost billions of dollars because we’re a low-cost provider of electricity; therefore we hold the price of electricity down in the area.

We’re in a compacted zone right here, where generation can’t be imported. The transmission system is not prepared to take that on. We employ 1,100 employees here, pay $75 million in taxes. In fact, if you look at our life extension, if we operated 20 more years, just the union labor would earn over $1.3 billion in earnings at today’s salary.

… The fact that it’s so close to New York City. I read one statistic: Within a 50-mile radius, there’s about 17 million people. … It’s obviously the nuclear plant that is closest to the most amount of people. Should that change the way it is judged in any way?

I don’t believe so, because whether you’re with 17 million people or with 10,000 people in the area, protection of the public is the requirement for all of us. …

We are part of the community. I live two miles away. My plant staff live here. They’re not a corporation down south. They’re people of our community, so it’s very important to them to operate safely.

The fact that we’re in the New York metropolitan area, there’s plants in the Boston metropolitan area; there’s plants in the Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. They’re all important.

But I’ll also tell you, it’s just as important for the plant in the middle of Kansas to operate safely, for the people who live around there, as it is for us here in New York.

But because of all those people, the problem of evacuation if something goes wrong is a bigger challenge, isn’t it?

Yeah. The evacuation is handled through the state and the counties. At Indian Point, we do an emergency traffic study every year. It’s required once every 10 years. But here we do that analysis, and we provide that to the state as well as the counties to implement evacuation.

It considers ongoing weather; it considers a football game at West Point. How would you handle the crowds on that day? So we continue to update that.

The key thing to remember — and it actually showed in Japan — these are not fast-moving events where you have to evacuate in two hours. In fact, there are days before they would be to a level that, should something happen, you would have to have that evacuation.

The notion of an instant event that would require everybody in a 50-mile radius to get out is hard to imagine?

It’s hard to imagine. Matter of fact, if you look at all the studies, all the analysis done by both the NRC, independent labs and the manufacturers, there is not a scenario that’s an instant scenario.

There are a lot of people, your neighbors here, who would say the evacuation plan is fanciful.

As I say, we’ve done the analysis. We know what it takes to be able to evacuate people. …

But you can’t test it.

You can’t test it as you go through, as you very well know, but what you can show is how many cars can fit out on a road, what’s the time frame, and what directions would you be heading.

You can do that analysis; you can do that modeling. … As I said, I live here, so if I was worried about evacuation, I would live somewhere else and commute to work. …

I believe that first we operate safely, and the possibility of evacuation is remote. Then if it was required, I believe there’s enough plans in place, and the state and the counties are prepared, to initiate that evacuation. They have been graded and evaluated by FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] on a routine basis. …

So you really think if something bad was happening here, all these people could get to where they’re supposed to go, would follow the rules as per the evacuation plan, and it would go in an orderly fashion?

I believe it would go in a more orderly fashion than people like to state. …

People panic when it comes to nuclear power, though, don’t they?

People are confused about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Nuclear energy is a source of power that we use. It’s clean. It’s low-cost from a pollution standpoint. It’s very controlled and monitored.

Our operators go through training every five weeks for a week. They’re evaluated by NRC. Takes them over two years to be able to study and be able to pass the NRC license, to be able to operate this facility. They take that with a great deal of pride and responsibility. …

… You already had a contentious relicensing endeavor under way, and then Fukushima happens. How much did that change the equation for you?

From our standpoint, it hasn’t changed the equation in a relicensing world. … It will change how we respond. We will learn from Japan. We will modify the plants.

The NRC has already come out with three tiers of actions [PDF] that we as the industry agree with, and we’re working with the NRC now [on] how we can implement those in an orderly fashion and do it in the priority scheme standpoint, what would give us the biggest margin of safety gain by implementing that. That’s the bigger piece of it, and that’s totally outside of the relicensing arena.

The one thing the U.S. has done consistently is we’ve updated through regulation, through the NRC. Anytime there’s been an event, anytime we’ve had a discovery, we’ve changed.

We’ve added emergency diesel generators as a result of Browns Ferry fire [in Alabama] in the ’70s. Three Mile Island [in Pennsylvania] is the worst accident in the U.S. that did not have a release on-site, even though that core was destroyed and their pressurized water reactor. We modified a plant tremendously as a result of lessons learned from there.

We modified it from Chernobyl. Even though that design is totally different than the U.S. plants, we learned from that. In the U.S. we’ve learned from 9/11. We instituted changes in backup equipment and are prepared for things that we say can’t happen. Even though our design says you can’t have that happen, we’re prepared for it.

We train our operators with the SAMGs, which is the Severe Accident Management Guidelines. We prepare them for what we tell them can’t happen, but what happens if it does? …

… The [9/11] hijackers flew right over the plant. … I guess there was some contemplation that a nuclear plant might have been a target at one time or another. How much did 9/11 in some ways make the nuclear industry, here in the U.S. in particular, safer?

It made it safer from the aspect of we sat back and re-analyzed what would happen if one of those jetliners [had crashed] into our plant. Our concrete domes … are over 4-foot-thick reinforced steel with a stainless steel liner that’s welded and tested and pressure-tested. We’ve done analysis. We know that those domes would have withstood a plane crashing into them. …

Even if the plane could hit our containments — and that’s a lot of questions if you talk to commercial airliner pilots, whether it could — the containment would withstand that.

Now it’s very reasonable to expect that we would have a wide area of fire. You would have all that jet fuel. You would have flames going in there. … So as a result of 9/11, … [we've] pre-staged equipment, diesel fire pumps that are available to be able to pump water into our spent fuel pools, should they be needed, pump water into our steam generators, which is the way we will take heat away from our reactor.

The problem in Japan was they weren’t able to cool the reactors. They safely shut down, but they weren’t able to take the heat away from reactors. So we have backup emergency pumps, if everything else was gone, that we could go and tie into the headers, the piping system, be able to pump water in to keep the reactor cool and reduce the heat load.

… If a 9/11-style attack had happened in Japan, maybe we wouldn’t have seen what we saw at Fukushima? Is that possible?

We’re not sure that Japan took the lessons from 9/11. Matter of fact, we’re not sure the rest of the world took the 9/11 lessons. I can’t speak to that. In fact, if they did in some aspects, they would have had different equipment available and staged.

It’s easy to say from the States, because with such a devastating, widespread area-type of event, that in the U.S. right now, and in our particular plant right here, there’s not a postulated event that would be similar to that other than some act of war or a meteorite that fell from the sky. …

We can have hurricanes. We can have tornadoes. In fact, the last year, two nuclear plants were hit by tornadoes. They safely shut down both of the units. They went into shutdown. The emergency backup power supplies worked as per design. …

In the U.S., when we designed our plants, we designed them from the worst-case event that was ever recorded in the area. So we designed our plant to the worst earthquake ever recorded in this area and gave ourselves margins of over 100 times that.

We designed ourselves for a flood. The worst flood ever recorded at our plant was 7 feet 6 inches. We designed our plant to be over 15 feet 3 inches before the first water would come over.

That would take a hurricane sitting over top, the storm surge preventing the Hudson River from emptying, multiple days of heavy rain and downpour, and the Ashokan Dam upstream failing and releasing 120 billion gallons of water, all concurrently. And with that, it would only get us up to about 14 feet in elevation, giving us another foot of margin. …

Indian Point was build on bedrock. Our plant was blasted out of granite. Our spent fuel pools, our reactor buildings were built on solid bedrock. When the earthquake just took place at North Anna [in Virginia], that plant was designed and built to withstand an earthquake, and the earthquake was greater than the design of the plant.

However, the plant didn’t sustain damage. It safely shut down the unit. It went through a thorough inspection, both by the NRC and the utility, without damage being observed, because it was built to withstand the worst case that they expected to happen, with margin to go further.

But they relied on their margin to survive that. … We know a little bit more about seismic activity beneath this plant, because in the ’60s, we didn’t know about the fault structures the way we know now.

Actually we did. Charles Richter actually testified at our licensing hearings about the fault.

And when we talked about the new, recently discovered fault, … they did extensive core boring. They went down to look at the fault, to know when the last geological movements were in here, which were over 2 million years ago.

The discussion you have by the seismic engineers and experts in the field vary on whether it could be a 6.0- or a 7.0-type earthquake, but they haven’t said that there’s any new activity or any reason to believe that you would have an earthquake here.

But even having that said, if we did have an earthquake, we’re designed with a large and sufficient margin on greater than a 7.0 earthquake on a Richter scale, the Richter scale being a measure of activity at that location. …

When they designed the plant, though, what did they anticipate? What was actually baked into the design?

The plant wasn’t built to a Richter. It was built to an acceleration, which gets into Mercalli [scale]. So the plant was designed, if you do the cross references, to somewhere greater than a 6.0 on the Richter scale.

We believe, with the margins and when we walk down and look at the analysis of it, what we know today on there, that the plant was designed to exceed a 7.0 without having fuel damage.

That’s what this is all about, is, could you have an earthquake and all your safety systems function to protect the unit and not have fuel damage?

Have you actually run the numbers, or is that just a gut feel?

We ran some numbers immediately after Japan on the Unit 3, because that was the unit that had some question on there and some reporting. They weren’t a formal engineering calculation, which we will be doing because the NRC is going to specify the type of calculation they want. Once they do that, we’ll do the formal engineering calculation that will support it.

But we went far enough down there that we’re very comfortable and confident that we have sufficient margins that would approach 7 or greater than a 7.

One of the issues that came out of this, from the NRC’s perspective, … was this idea of coping time: the amount of time that a plant can endure something that is multiple dominoes falling, and a blackout situation, and you’re relying on batteries. They’re suggesting on the order of 72 hours, I believe it is, for coping time. Is that a reasonable amount to expect out of a nuclear plant in the U.S.?

… What are we trying to protect against? At our plant, to get there, we have six sources of off-site power that come in, supply power to our plant from the outside. We have three emergency diesel generators on both units. Only two of those three are required to be able to safely shut down a unit, so we have an installed spare.

We then installed, after the Browns Ferry fire, additional backup electrical capability, so I have two more redundant emergency diesel generators. Either one is capable of safely shutting down a unit. They’re also capable of cross-tying between the two units.

They’re located at four different elevations, four different areas of the plant. Some are in bunkers you were in; some are inside a building; one is located behind a building; another one’s up elevated at about 95 feet, which is at least 40 feet above where the water is.

What we’re talking about is, we would have to have an event that took out all the off-site power, that took out all eight of those emergency diesel generators, and then I would be relying on my steam pump. That pump provides water to the steam generators to cool it, which again takes the heat away from reactor, that has a tank on there that had as a coping strategy in the south of 24 hours, and it’s using the steam from the reactor to power. …

So all I have to do is be able to make up water to the tanks, or make up water to the water supply. I’m always required to have a 24-hour supply of water as I go through that.

That gets me down to the installed equipment I have, … say all that goes away. And then from the Bravo-five-Bravo ["B5b"], the 9/11, I have a backup pump that’s capable of going and pumping water either from a fire head or from the Hudson River. I can pump that into the spent fuel pools; I can pump that into the steam generators to cool.

… Right now, I keep my post-9/11 separated from the rest of the plant, and I just bought an additional unit that I separated from that. So I basically had 10 different locations, separated by space, elevation, equipment protection, that all would have to go away.

Then I have to figure out:, what am I trying to cope with, 72 [hours]? What do I have left that I’m going to be using to cope with? That gets to be the difficult discussion.

What you’re saying is, you have so many layers here, and you’ve distributed all the backups in so many ways … that you don’t need that additional battery backup that they suggest?

The battery in our case isn’t the design. In the boiling water reactor [BWR], batteries are actually operating equipment. In ours, they’re predominantly for indication in the control room, and operate a couple valves. …

One of the things that has been discussed with the NRC is small diesel power units that I could go charge my batteries up, that put power to my battery chargers if everything else was gone.

For my spent fuel pool, have a small diesel unit to be able to plug in, a portable unit that if I lost everything on-site had plugs already installed, and I take over portable units that I would store in some type of reinforced structure, whatever that looks like — I don’t know whether it’s a bomb shelter, whatever it happens to be — that I could pull this equipment out, and whatever surviving equipment I have to use. …

So when you say “coping strategy,” it doesn’t have to be batteries.

That’s correct.

You’ve got other tools in your toolbox.

… What we’re trying to [do] is mitigate the consequences of some severe accident. … We’re not going to have a tsunami here at Indian Point. It’s not practical. We’re not going to have an earthquake of the magnitude that they had in Japan. We could have an earthquake. That’s a possibility. …

You mentioned kind of facetiously a meteorite. … At what point is it an unreasonable risk that you’re planning for? How do you draw that line? … In Japan they were convinced that you couldn’t have a tsunami that large, and that was the design basis. Should the industry be expected to expect the unexpected?

Absolutely. …We designed our plant for the worst thing ever recorded happening in our area. We started out with a step higher in the design principles going in there.

But our whole training and our whole philosophy is, here’s our design basis, whether security, what terrorist group I’m designed to defend against, and we say they aren’t going to get in because that’s my design basis.

But we train. I had 250 FBI SWAT, county, state police here last June, training for a take-back scenario here at the site, even though I said it can’t happen. …

We train our operators. We drill on that. Here’s what you would do if everything else was gone. What would be your approach?

… In the wake of Fukushima, do guys like you question your fundamental assumptions?

Absolutely. … As soon as I looked at what happened in Japan at the site, we ordered a second pump so we could put it in a different area and I could respond to a widespread area that I wasn’t required to before.

… Prior to Fukushima, the term that was being used fairly frequently was “nuclear renaissance.” … Industry-wide, that’s where things were heading. How much has that changed, do you think?

If you look at the polls now, the majority of Americans are still in favor of it. We’re trying to impact our greenhouse gases. The air quality in this area, in New York, is poor. So we’re looking for alternatives that will provide pollution-free energy for our demands.

Renewables are a part of that equation, but renewables haven’t been developed to the point where they can be there every day for us to turn the light switch on, because we want the lights to go on every time we hit the light switch.

We don’t want to worry about the wind not running. I don’t want to have a cloudy day, but they’re an important part of our total power and energy plan. They’re just not there yet.

So when you look at what we can control and keep a stable base, because natural gas, the prices — we know with our heating bills — go up and down. Right now we’re in a low. Shale is promising to be a great source of natural gas.

How long will that price stay low before we export the gas and demand starts going up where we’re sending the gas to? So nuclear, I think, is still a vital part of the energy mix in the U.S.

… A lot of [people] don’t seem to want nuclear [at Indian Point], but they want those lights on in Times Square, don’t they? How are we going to reconcile that?

In the U.S. we have a very tough and fair regulator. I have four NRC inspectors here all the time on my site. I have thousands of hours of inspection where NRC teams come in.

They provide regulation and rules to us. We’re not party to that. We get to weigh in and discuss it with them and try to give them alternatives of methodology to reach their goal they’re trying to achieve with regulations.

But we’ve consistently upgraded how we operate our plants. We’ve consistently improved the facility’s safety margins. When we discover something at one plant, the NRC will come through.

In fact, the NRC a year ago, before Japan, had started out with new seismic regulations that they’re going to require for us to do a review based on some new information with the new plants that were being presented. So we’re continually updating.

That’s outside of license renewal. Whether you’re [up for] license renewal or not, whether you have [your] license renewed, you’re still going to go through the same review process.

Could this be the beginning of the end of nuclear power?

I don’t believe so. But again, the only way we operate is operate safely. That’s our fundamental responsibility. … In the U.S., we’ve demonstrated we can operate safely, and we have to continue to demonstrate that.

The thing that will stop nuclear power [is] if we fail to provide that assurance to the U.S., to the public, to the customers, to the communities, that we can operate safely.

Do you envision a time, though, when in this nation there’s actual growth in a bunch of new plants as opposed to a lot of relicensing?

I think when we come to grips with the air quality. You saw recently when the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] was trying to put in new standards with coal. Our company is a leader in [reducing] greenhouse emissions. Our CEO, Wayne Leonard, has been a vocal spokesperson for that.

So at some point in time, the air quality or the other initiatives we’re trying to achieve are going to help support us for nuclear power, because in the end, if you want a clean, consistent, reliable energy source, nuclear power is still the best.

… The reaction in Germany [to move away from nuclear], did that surprise you?

… In that case it’s government-run. They’re making their own decisions about their own future, so it’s more of a political discussion than it is a reality, because their plants in some cases have very new design.

They have invested heavily in renewables over the years. They’ve placed some big governmental bets and subsidies on renewables, and it’s their contention that they’re never going to get to that renewable future if they don’t pull nuclear out of the equation. Do you go along with that thinking?

I guess if you’re telling me the only way to get us to be OK with the lights being off is to take nuclear out, so once the lights go off, then I’ll want to put solar panels up, I don’t know. That’s the methodology I would like to approach to encourage renewables. …

… This billion-dollar investment that you made [at Indian Point], what have you done here? Why have you spent so much money on this investment, and what does that get Indian Point and Entergy?

For Entergy and Indian Point, what the investment does is to assure that we can operate safely. I keep going back to that, because if I don’t operate safely, I don’t operate it.

So we replaced steam generators. … One emergency diesel generator we replaced and put a new one in. It was over $10 million to replace some older gas turbine generators that were here on the site.

We’ve replaced our reactor cool system pumps and motors throughout that. And you do that because some are 20 to 30 years old, so you want to replace them and make sure they’re reliable and safe to operate.

We are in a deregulated environment, so the only way we can earn a profit is to operate safely, and the only way to operate safely is to invest in the facility. Without that investment, the ability to operate would be challenged.

The real growth in nuclear right now is in China and India. Is there some concern in your industry that as the U.S. market remains more or less frozen — with a few exceptions, those AP1000s that they’re building — the technology remains frozen, does the U.S. run the risk of seeing the nuclear business move offshore like so many other industries?

The benefit of that growth offshore is the development of equipment, development of companies that are willing to still manufacture this large equipment. … They’re large pumps, large-capacity motors.

So what the resurgence has done for us is brought manufacturing back into the industry, so that there are new pumps, new motors being manufactured, and it’s not a worry about companies going out of business.

In effect, the growth of nuclear worldwide is actually helping the U.S. industry with the availability of manufacturing.

But the U.S. becomes, in essence, an importer.

… Actually, right now we’re doing a lot of exporting. There’s a lot of nuclear industry in the U.S. that’s manufacturing and building and exporting components.

Still built here?

Still built here.

… One of the concerns when we especially talk about seismic stuff is that our historical record pales by comparison to the geologic record. How can we say for certain that that is the biggest event that has happened?

… The U.S. Geological [Survey] looks at recorded information — whether it’s newspaper, it’s accounts of what took place — and they make the assessment on what the earthquake magnitude was.

They’ve also done extensive core boring around here for years to determine when’s the last time there was movement, what type of activity there was on that in the geological plates that are located in this area.

From a standpoint [of] the floods, … the recorded history here is less than 300 years, or 400 I guess in some aspects. But we’ve monitored and measured that and documented it, and that’s what we’re using as the basis. So far that basis has held up right on top, even with the recent hurricanes and the fact that if you look at this year, it was the year of the weather. In January and February we set a new record with over 35 inches of snow. In August and September we set a new record with over 27 inches of rain. We had an earthquake; we had a hurricane; we had solar flares and severe lightning storms.

We’re routinely challenged by Mother Nature, and so far our design has been very robust, and it’s handled every challenge.

… But there’s still that concern that thousand-year events may not be on the radar screen.

I don’t know what that thousand-year event [is], but what we do know is, the plates in the Northeast aren’t on edge. We’re overlapping in the middle of plates right now, so generating a large earthquake is not a physical capability. Can you have earthquakes? Absolutely. We’ve demonstrated that. …

For us to have a tsunami is not credible. Flooding is possible. We’ve done analysis and we’ve included breaking dams, which the NRC is going to have everybody go back and re-analyze to make sure you included those because of the floods in Nebraska with the Missouri River.

We’ve continued to update, analyze, and look at anything [that] could possibly change to make sure that we have sufficient margin and we’re prepared.

… If something happens here, who’s in charge?

We have emergency duty teams. I have four teams that are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One of those teams is always within an hour of the plant, have to be able to respond.

That emergency director is one of my senior managers. That emergency director has the full authority and the complete financial backing of the corporation to make those decisions. He doesn’t have to ask me permission. He follows the procedures and implements those in accordance with the training, the procedures and the drills we lay out.

I’ll give you a for-instance. One of the things that came out of Japan was, were they timely in the injection of seawater into the reactor to help cool down that reactor? And there’s all sorts, at least from my side. They had to go up to the prime minister. They did, they didn’t; it really doesn’t matter.

The way it works right here is, my emergency director would say, “Do I have reactor water storage tank water, yes or no?” “No.” “Do I have condensate storage?” “No.” “Do I have city water?” “No.” “Do I have fire water?” “No.” “Use the Hudson River.” That’s the extent of the decision making, the approval.

Now, if I was here, I’d be informed. And that’s just what I’d be. I’m not part of that decision tree, because we have a very structured approach to make sure that would happen.

Our CEO doesn’t get to weigh in on whether you’re going to shoot water into the plant or not, because we’re all required to protect the release of radioactive material to protect the public. That’s my fundamental job. It’s not commercial viability, whether I ever operate again or not. That’s not what we’re concerned with.

Our teams are drilled, trained, and have the total authority, as the emergency director, to implement our emergency plan. If that means taking an action that will render the unit never to operate again, that’s what they’re supposed to do to protect the public.

That autonomy is key.

Very key. When we look back at what took place in Japan, not being over there, I couldn’t understand the hesitation and the time it took to make those decisions.

There was some hesitation in the decision making, wasn’t there? Crucial hesitation.

It appears that [way].

David Lochbaum of UCS [Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists] … says [there's] a 20-year leak that hasn’t been addressed.

In our plant design, in order to do refueling outages, we shut down, we disassemble the reactor, and then inside that, there’s a cavity there that we fill up with water. That’s filled up with water so we can move the fuel and transfer it into the spent fuel pool.

Because of the highly radioactive [fuel], we keep it underwater. That is basically a pool that’s used for about 10 days every two years. In that pool there’s some leakage that goes down into the elevation below, inside our containment, and goes into our piping system, is collected and processed as normal water. The leakage is minor.

The one thing we practice is, there’s radiological exposure that our workers get if we were going in there. … I would tell you, it’s minor leakage. It drips down. It’s for a period of about 10 days every two years, during a refueling outage.

Although we haven’t corrected the problem, we continue to investigate methodologies that we could stop the leaks that would not require a lot of exposure to our workers, because quite frankly, it’s a minor leak. It’s collected inside containment. It’s not released anywhere else outside, and it’s not a radiological concern to my workers. But in fact, trying to do a repair would be a radiological type of impact to our workers.

Is it a hazard issue or a cost issue or both?

It’s a hazard issue looking [from the] standpoint of how I can effectively repair it. … Matter of fact, we’re looking at a technology with a French company that’s actually using a German technology to see how we’d go in and seal it. …

There is no adverse consequences to our workers. There’s none to the public. … We’ve tested our concrete and made sure that there’s been no damage to any other equipment in there. But at this point in time, we have not come to a solution.

So at this point, there’s no plan to fix it?

We’re still looking. We’re still investigating a process that will allow us to fix it without giving unnecessary exposure to workers that would not be a cost benefit to the employees. …

One of the other issues that comes up time and again is the issue of fire protection. … What’s the perspective on that particular mandate, from the operators’ perspective?

I talked about the Browns Ferry fire. … What the NRC said at that time is, if you were still under construction, you had to make all the changes prior to starting up. If you were operating, you had to go in and either do changes or demonstrate how you could cope with a fire in this area that you lost the capacity to do some function.

That function may be, turn that light switch off. And if I can’t get to that light switch because that cable got burned out, I would have to go to the fuse box and flip the fuse. It could be that simple.

So they gave the option to the industry. We went and looked at it. We modified some things. We put new cables, we put fire wraps in some areas, and other areas we didn’t. We took what was considered to be acceptable, from 1980 right through 2005, [actions] that are called operator manual actions [OMAs].

Those operator manual actions are taken if you were to have a fire in a specific area of a plant that prevented a function of a piece of equipment. How would you operate that equipment?

We’ve had to demonstrate that we could send an operator from the control room down to flick the switch, turn the fuse breaker off, open this valve within the time frame required, and that he has to have no other duties that were assigned to him in the event of a fire. He can’t be the fire brigade and the person going back and doing that.

That was the way we did business. We went through, and then in 2005, the NRC was internally audited by the inspector general and [told] that “You didn’t formally approve all those operator actions you need to have in a formal approval.”

So we went through that process, and we submitted them in February 2009, the ones that we have. I believe it’s about 30 total, about 15 on one unit, 18 on the other, or somewhere in that ballpark.

The NRC has been reviewing that since 2009, actually has come out and done inspections, looked at them to determine whether they would still meet the approval based on all the criteria of today and what they know today.

We expect to get a response from the NRC sometime in [the] near future. They may approve some of them, they may approve all of them, or they may disapprove some of them.

We’ll go out and look at what we have to do to correct them, which may mean more modifications to the plant, could change that, pull different cables, wrap insulating material around, depending on which ones they accept or not. Then we’ll deal with what their response is.

But it’s been 30 years. Why are we still talking about this?

It’s interesting that it keeps coming back up. The approach we take, we believe it’s perfectly acceptable. The NRC accepted that for 30 years, gone through, and then it recently came back up.

So many plants in the U.S. have been in the same position. They’ve submitted them, had them approved; some have done some modifications same as we have. We did a combination of modifications and operator manual actions. But in some cases, they keep getting reviewed and questioned.

But fundamentally here, the initial suggestions, the initial order, went too far? Is that what the problem was? Is that why it’s been so many work-arounds and changes and so forth?

I don’t know if it went too far. I think that it lacked clarity. One of the things that happens when it lacks clarity [is] you go back and you have a lot of discussions. Because of that lack of clarity and clear, consistent application of that, then there was always questions and discussions.

That comes up a lot when you talk about regulators. Is the NRC sometimes a little too opaque for you?

… I would tell you that the staff that we deal with at the NRC is high quality, very technically knowledgeable, and they have a role to do as the regulator. … They’re not the utility, so they’re looking at things independently, and they form their opinions, and then they issue regulations.

We as the industry have the obligation to perform and conform to those regulations or we don’t operate.

Are the inspectors tough?

The inspectors are tough. They’re knowledgeable. They’re ex-Navy. They’re engineers. Some have been in the industry; some haven’t.

They go through a tremendous amount of training. They’re on-site at all times. They’re on all our notifications and callouts. If I have any issue, an event, they’re notified. …

We get a good look from the NRC, and it’s not an easy pass from our standpoint. It’s a tough regulator that does tremendous amount of inspections. …

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