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Potential flood risk causes citation at upstate nuclear plant

United States Government Work
Ginna nuclear power plant in Ontario, Wayne County

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued a citation to the owners of the Ginna nuclear power plant in upstate New York. Preliminary inspection findings released Tuesday cited the plant for failure to address a long-standing flood risk. The issue is considered a low-to-moderate level safety concern.

It all comes down to an improperly sealed manhole at the plant, which could have allowed flood waters to breach the rooms housing emergency batteries.

And, according to NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan, that’s an issue because those batteries act as a backup power source to help run the plant its safety systems during an emergency.

“The concern here was that these rooms could experience flooding where the batteries were housed, and that could also have an impact on the emergency diesel generators since battery power helps control the breaker for emergency diesel generators,” Sheehan says.

The flood protection issue at the Wayne County facility should have been dealt with more than 30 years ago, when the plant was under different ownership, he says.

Concerns were raised most recently in May 2013 as part of the NRC’s response to the 2011 disaster in Japan, which saw a tsunami flood the Fukushima nuclear facility resulting in a partial meltdown.

Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, the current owners of the Ginna plant, say the cited issue has since been addressed.

And, company spokeswoman Maria Hudson says it never affected the safety of the plant.

“Ginna is a robust, fortified facility designed to withstand the most severe weather-related events, including the highest recorded flood levels in the area. This potential issue was corrected, it did not affect the safe, reliable operation of the plant, and we are going to continue to work with the NRC to make our facility even safer and more prepared for the unimaginable.”

NRC’s main concern is the long-standing nature of the problem, Sheehan says.

“While this certainly was not a risk of something that would happen with any kind of regularity, there was a possibility that with severe flooding that this could become an issue. And, as we’ve seen in recent years, we are seeing storms of greater intensity and particularly in the wake of what happened at Fukushima, this is an area that’s getting a great deal of attention from the NRC.”

Sheehan says the Fukushima disaster has had a tangible impact on the way nuclear power plants are regulated in the US.

“You have Three Mile Island back in ’79, you have Chernobyl in the ‘80s and then you have Fukushima. These were all really significant events that have resulted in changes in the way nuclear power plants are operated around the world. We wanted to draw as many lessons as we could from Fukushima and then implement changes in response to that.”

While the vast majority of inspection findings fall into what’s called the ‘green’ category by the NRC, the gap in Ginna’s flood protection was a step more severe than that.

At this point Constellation is not facing a fine, but the issue could result in greater oversight from the NRC and additional inspections as the report’s findings are finalized.

Constellation will have the opportunity to respond to the preliminary report before it’s put to bed in about a month.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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