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Nuclear inspectors recommend more severe-accident training at Palo Verde

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, like most in the nation, is safe but could stand to improve its preparedness procedures, federal inspectors said this week. (CNS file photo by Griselda Nevarez.)

The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, like most in the nation, is safe but could stand to improve its preparedness procedures, federal inspectors said this week. (CNS file photo by Griselda Nevarez.)

Nuclear Regulatory Commission report said more employees at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station need regular training on the plant’s Severe Accident Mitigation Guidelines, and that training exercises are rare.

Experts say the NRC report, released Monday, is a good step in evaluating the safety of America’s nuclear plants but shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

“I wouldn’t recommend anyone packing up their goods and heading out on the highway,” said David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ nuclear safety project.

The NRC looked at all nuclear power plants in the country and whether they are living up to 10 elements in their voluntary Severe Accident Mitigation Guidelines. Palo Verde met eight of the 10 elements in the review, the median result among plants nationwide in the report released Monday.

All U.S. nuclear plants voluntarily adopted such guidelines in the late 1990s, but the guidelines are important because they outline the critical steps that must be taken to contain radioactive material if a reactor core is damaged.

“If staff aren’t regularly going through the guidelines in training scenarios, you have less confidence they can carry out their duties in an emergency,” said Scott Brunell, an NRC spokesman.

The guidelines are designed to prevent a disaster similar to the one at Fukushima after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

NRC inspectors at Palo Verde found that only one group of employees who would work to contain radiation in a severe accident receives annual refreshers to their initial training.

Senior technical advisers at Palo Verde get annual training because they tell other workers what to do during a severe accident, but the NRC wants more workers to know the guidelines that well.

“It would be better if a wider range of staff were trained on the guidelines, so if control center staff saw indicators of an emergency, they can act without being told,” said Brunell.

The inspectors also found there has been only one training exercise at Palo Verde in the last six years that used the severe-accident guidelines. But plant officials said Tuesday that Palo Verde engages in 50 emergency planning exercises each year, which include elements of the severe-accident guidelines.

Despite having room to improve, Palo Verde’s inspection was as good as or better than most American nuclear plants.

NRC inspectors at all 65 U.S. nuclear plants did the review at the request of the agency’s task force examining the Fukushima accident.

The reports consist of 10 guideline elements, as well as the date that plant guidelines were last updated and a statement describing the training process and frequency.

Palo Verde and 18 other facilities had eight elements. Another 19 facilities had nine.

Palisades Power Plant in Covert, Mich., and Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant near Glen Rose, Texas, each had only three elements.

Most nuclear plants have updated their guidelines in the last five years, but three plants had not updated theirs since 1997.

Many nuclear plants struggled when it came to training exercises. Employees at 92 percent of the plants received initial training, but just 60 percent of the plants held routine training exercises using the guidelines.

While nearly every American nuclear plant can improve, the NRC in a statement accompanying the report said its efforts “aim to ensure the plants never need to use” severe-accident guidelines.

“If you get to severe-accident space, you’ve already gone past NRC regulations,” said Brunell.

Best nuclear power plants in NRC report

These nuclear plants had all 10 guideline elements and had updated their severe accident plans in the last two years.

- Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant, Brunswick County, S.C.
- Diablo Canyon Power Plant, San Luis Obispo County, Calif.
- Duane Arnold Energy Center, Palo, Iowa
- Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, Port Gibson, Miss.
- River Bend Nuclear Station, St. Francisville, La.
- Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, Spring City, Tenn.
- Wolf Creek Nuclear Generating Station, Burlington, Kan.

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