News 2 investigates violations at SC nuclear power plants

News 2 investigates violations at SC nuclear power plants (Image 1)

By Cleve Bryan

First there was the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, then Chernobyl in 1986, and now in 2011 it’s Fukushima Daiichi.

All of them were meltdowns at commercial nuclear power plants, and the question is: could one of the seven reactors in South Carolina be next?

“Such events should not happen, because we understand those events, and we've taken measures against them,” say Dr. Travis Knight, a professor with the University of South Carolina, the state’s only graduate-level nuclear engineering program.

Based on his inside knowledge of the industry's safety culture, he thinks a meltdown in South Carolina is extremely unlikely.

“To the safety culture, everything is planned, everything is planned down to the most minute level,” says Knight.

Despite Knight’s confidence, the nuclear plants in South Carolina are hardly without blemishes to their safety records.

News 2 used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain safety records about our plants from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Here's what we found:

Violations are based on a 4 level severity ranking system.

Severity levels 1 and 2 usually involve actions with “actual or high potential to have serious consequences on public health and safety or the common defense and security.”

Level 3 violations are not as serious but “significant enough to warrant consideration of a civil penalty.”

A level 4 is described as “not as significant based on risk”.

Since 1990, the Catawba Nuclear Station in York, SC has 8 Severity Level 3 violations, resulting in a total of $250,000 in fines.

The Oconee Nuclear Station in Seneca had 9 Severity Level 3 violations, and 2 Severity Level 2 violations totaling $765,000.

The H.B. Robinson plant in Hartsville had 10 Severity Level 3 violations and 1 Severity Level  2 violation totaling $443,000.

The V.C. Summer plant in Jenkensville had 3 Severity Level 3 violations, with no associated fines.

When it comes to violations and fines, Knight says that not all issues are associated with the danger of radiation exposure to employees or the public, but “Many such violations, points to a culture of maybe a lack of concern and that's where I say vigilance and having that safety culture is so critical.”

A further study of the Severity Level 2 violations shows that in 1997 at the Oconee plant there was problem with a 2 pumps over-heating for failing to correctly measure water levels.

In 1998 Oconee had a second Severity Level 2 violation due to faulty instrument calibration which the NRC called “a very significant regulatory concern.”

Duke Energy which owns the Oconee plant says they have since fixed the faulty instruments and added new training procedures, resulting in no reoccurring violations.

In 2004, the NRC cited the H.B. Robinson plant with a Severity Level 2 violation for retaliating against an employee for raising concerns about a possible security breach at the facility.

A spokesperson for Progress Energy which owns H.B. Robinson responded to the violation by saying “We established and communicated expectations for a safety conscious work environment to our employees and we monitor the health of the safety conscious work environment.”

Knight says if not addressed a violation like that puts the safety culture in a plant at risk.

“That sort of thing cannot be tolerated, it's just too critical that there be an open environment where concerns can be brought to the forefront,” says Knight.

Despite no Severity Level 1 violations in South Carolina, Knight reminds us there is always potential for grave danger.

“If we were to even become complacent, that would be the downside,” says Knight.

He points out that each of the 104 nuclear plants in the country have 2 inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on-site who perform routine and surprise inspections.

He says it would take a combination of major problems beyond reasonable risk for a meltdown that would actually endanger the public.

“The fear is always what you don't know and again that is why we have plants designed to such a robust level with multiple barriers and multiple levels of safety.”

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