Feds privately rap Millstone over response to pump problem

Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Conn. (AP Photo/Bob Child)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — As Connecticut’s nuclear plant struggled for months last year to fix a critical water pump, federal regulators expressed concern among themselves that the Millstone Power Station was slow to grasp the scope of the issue and make corrections, according to internal emails.

The auxiliary pump, which cools the reactor in emergencies if offsite power and diesel generators fail, did not operate properly during tests in November and December 2013 and again in January 2014 before the problem was fixed. In February, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent a team for a closer inspection and, six months later, issued a finding of low to moderate safety problems.

The handling of the issue also raised alarms at the local Nuclear Energy Advisory Council, which questioned Millstone officials last September about the repeated problems.

“What concerned us the most is that it seemed out of character,” said John Sheehan, chairman of the council that oversees Connecticut nuclear power plant issues. “In previous years they were very alert to problems and correcting them. They seemed to miss this time.”

Stephen Scace, Millstone’s site vice president, wrote to Sheehan on Nov. 10 and said there is “room to improve” how it identifies and evaluates problems.

Ken Holt, Millstone’s spokesman, told The Associated Press the owners of the plant have revamped their approach to trouble-shooting following its work with federal regulators.

“If it’s not immediately obvious why it’s not working, we put a team to work on it,” he said.

Millstone, which is owned by Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion Resources Inc., operates two reactors in Waterford and generally supplies half of all power in Connecticut and 12 percent of New England’s.

Privately, NRC inspectors voiced concern of Millstone’s handling of the problem, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press in a public records request.

Brian Haagensen, a resident inspector at the plant, wrote to NRC colleagues on Aug. 28, 2014, that Millstone missed opportunities over several months before the problem was identified in January 2014. He said plant officials were wrong to insist that the faulty bearing was the only pump problem.

“I believe we make it clear that the incorrect bearing was only a small part of a much larger problem,” he wrote, citing Millstone’s failure to determine that an incorrect bearing had been installed sooner.

He pointed to a violation cited by the NRC that said Millstone should have identified sooner that an incorrect bearing had been installed in the pump. “While it was ultimately identified in January 2014, there were opportunities to identify it beginning in August 2013,” the inspection team wrote.

And Raymond McKinley, an NRC official who oversees inspectors at Millstone and two other plants, wrote in a December 2013 email that Millstone considered asking for a one-time change in guidelines “to buy some time” to fix a problem.

“No indication that they believe there is a problem, but I am sure they have heard enough questions and want to put the issue to bed,” he said.

Josephine Ambrosini, an NRC senior inspector, said in a May 7, 2014, email that the “earliest indications” of a problem with the pump were evident in the spring of 2013. Millstone took a long time to address the concerns, she said.

Sheehan, chairman of the local advisory council, told the AP its members were worried that problems in the 1990s when Northeast Utilities operated Millstone — such as safety issues and whistleblower complaints — were at risk of recurring. Dominion purchased Millstone in 2001.

“We were concerned it was the start of what happened in the 1990s when NU ran the plant, that their strict culture was starting to break down,” he said. “We wanted to catch it before it catches you.”

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Follow Stephen Singer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SteveSinger10

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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