SC Utility Slow to Fix Nuclear Safety Equipment

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 @ 06:12 PM gHale

Progress Energy Carolinas provided false information and failed for months to fix important nuclear safety equipment at its Darlington County power plant last year, federal regulators said.
The utility company faces increased federal oversight as a result of problems cited by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a notice of violation issued Tuesday.
Company officials say Progress did not try to mislead federal regulators and company workers attempted to fix problems discovered in a generator during the fall of 2008. The problems have now been resolved, said Andy Cole, a spokesman for Progress.
But missteps cited by the NRC put Progress on a short list for federal action if the company suffers more troubles. For now, the NRC won’t fine Progress, but the agency may increase inspections of the 40-year-old plant near Hartsville in eastern South Carolina.
The NRC’s findings come during a year in which the plant has suffered two fires and an electrical fault in a coolant pump motor.
NRC officials have said the agency has given more scrutiny to the Darlington County nuclear plant this year than other South Carolina atomic power stations.
The violation notice centers on problems with an emergency generator that keeps the plant safe if a power outage occurs. Without the emergency power to cool atomic fuel, the plant could suffer a meltdown and leak radiation, federal officials said. The plant has two emergency generators.
In a letter Tuesday to Progress, NRC regional administrator Luis Reyes said the company’s failure to fix a breaker malfunction in one of the generators led to a second breakdown of the generator about six months later.
Progress Energy had “reasonable opportunity to identify and pursue correction of the breaker failure,” Reyes wrote. But his letter said Progress did not conduct “thorough troubleshooting” or attempt to find out the problem’s specific cause.
Cole said Progress tried to determine why breaker problems on the generator occurred in October 2008, but was unable to do so. The company learned later that the problem came from a defect in equipment, Cole said, noting that the problem was discovered by the manufacturer. A pin was causing the breaker not to close, which affected power in the generator, he said.
NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said the generator problems did not put the public in danger, because they are backup systems. But he said it is important to have those running in case of a need for emergency power.
In addition to those concerns, Progress violated NRC rules by failing to provide accurate information in a June 2009 report addressing the generator problems, the agency said. The NRC violation notice said the lack of information provided by Progress to the NRC helped the company avoid additional inspections.
Cole said Progress Energy, which operates power plants throughout the Carolinas, did not try to mislead the NRC. “We didn’t give inaccurate information, we just gave incomplete information,” Cole said. “This was not on purpose. Even the NRC says that.” The NRC could have fined Progress $70,000 but decided not to because the company has tried to resolve the problems, Reyes’ letter said. It also said, however, that significant future violations could result in a civil penalty. The NRC also says it will conduct one extra inspection of the plant and may conduct more if necessary.