Officials have concerns over worker peformance issues at Prairie IslandU.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials worry that human performance issues at the Prairie Island nuclear generating plant could undercut safety.
By: MIke Longaecker, Pierce County Herald
RED WING - U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials worry that human performance issues at the Prairie Island nuclear generating plant could undercut safety.
The plant was flagged for numerous findings that share a common cause following a mid-cycle performance review in August. Agency officials on Tuesday met with Xcel Energy — the utility company that operates the plant — to discuss the human performance issues, which they say include common themes.
"If you don't deal with the subtle issues that cross-cut ... it's eventually going to impact safety," said NRC Regional Manager Mark Satorius.
The findings are not violations of NRC requirements, but are considered a red flag that "sends a real strong signal," said NRC Public Affairs Officer Prema Chandrathil.
NRC Division of Reactor Projects Director Steven West called human performance issues at the Prairie Island plant a "precursor" to safety issues.
The review makes the Prairie Island site one of 11 nuclear reactors in the United States with substantive cross-cutting issues. There are 104 reactors nationwide.
West said the issues, identified during the August refueling event, include systematic process concerns, such as workers accessing incorrect valves.
Other issues include problem-solving approaches that NRC officials said are not based on conservative assumptions. West said an example recorded at the plant this year resulted in a temporary 5- to 7-percent reduction in reactor power.
Procedural compliance and procedural accuracy also were issues identified by the agency.
"It tells us there's an issue in human performance," West said at the meeting, attended by more than 70 people — mostly Xcel Energy employees — at Red Wing Public Library.
The NRC has set additional meetings with Xcel and will focus follow-up inspections on human performance. The plant will be evaluated again during the next end-of-year assessment.
Xcel officials said the problems had been identified internally in late 2008 and were being addressed before the NRC formally notified the utility in September.
A panel of Xcel officials detailed an extensive plan to address the agency's concerns.
"Prairie Island takes this very seriously," said site Vice President Mark Schimmel. "We could ill afford to continue to have these events."
Still, Xcel officials admitted the issue is not fully resolved. Dennis Koehl, Xcel's chief nuclear officer, said the problem lies in "cultures and behaviors you can't change overnight."
"We certainly are not declaring victory," said Brad Sawatzke, director of site operations. "This journey has just started and we have a long, long way to go to where we want to be."
But it is clearly under way, Xcel officials said.
Scott Northart, Xcel's recovery plan manager, said 73 percent of the 400 actions laid out in the company's recovery plan are complete.
The plan includes fundamental steps put into place over the past year that include focusing on helping workers make correct decisions. Officials said that means adopting a "stop when unsure" practice among workers.
"We've gained a lot from enforcing that tool," said plant manager Kevin Ryan.
He said the undertaking has resulted so far in the labeling of more than 1,500 valves, 300 temporary procedure changes and 2,400 permanent procedure changes.
The cross-cutting issues will be cleared when NRC officials are satisfied that Xcel has demonstrated sustainable improvement in human performance.