Regulators prepare to review Oconee Nuclear leak

Greenville NewsNovember 12, 2013 

— Government regulators will likely decide by the end of this week how extensive their review will be of the radioactive leak that led to the shutdown of one of Oconee Nuclear Station’s three reactors, a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman said Tuesday.

“What will be determined is how we want to follow up,” NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said. “We do not have issues on whether Oconee is safe to operate.”

The Unit 1 reactor was taken offline Monday following discovery on Friday of what Duke Energy said is a leak in the reactor’s containment building, a company spokeswoman said. The NRC’s power reactor status database showed both Units 1 and 2 operating at 0 percent.

Each of Oconee’s reactors have been shut down at various points within the past month — though not all at once.

In that same time, the federal government released a study that showed the 40-year-old station has been among regulators’ most scrutinized over the past decade.

Unit 2 has been offline for long-scheduled refueling since mid-October.

Three weeks ago, Unit 3 was shut down for a weekend after engineers found a leak that caused water to flow unevenly through the turbine system, a malfunction not related to reactor cooling.

That leak was different from the most-recent shutdown. The latest leak occurred in an area that water cools the reactor, Duke spokeswoman B.J. Gatten said.

Unit 1 was operating during the four-day, Oct. 24 shutdown of Unit 3.

During this week’s shutdown of Unit 1, the third reactor will keep power generation at a level adequate to serve customers, Gatten said.

The company is researching the cause of the leak and will develop plans for repair, she said.

The NRC will review what its resident inspectors have found and determine the scope of the problems, the potential implications and how the company responded to the leak, Hannah said.

The agency could seek review from a risk-analysis engineer outside the resident inspector program, he said.

At no point, Hannah said, do regulators think the Oconee station 40 miles northwest of Greenville is unsafe for the public or station workers.

If the agency believed Oconee wasn’t safe, it would require extended shutdown as it has for troubled plants across the nation, Hannah said.

“The NRC isn’t hesitant to reach that point,” he said, “but Oconee is nowhere near that point.”

Oconee County emergency management officials said they were notified of the shutdown and leak but didn’t believe it rose to the level of a public risk.

The leak is considered small — less than one-tenth of a gallon per minute — and was limited to the secure confines of the containment building, Gatten said.

A recent government study showed that ongoing safety concerns over a 12-year period have required the NRC to regulate the station under heightened scrutiny.

In the study, the federal Government Accountability Office determined that the agency nationwide has enforced its rules unevenly depending on what part of the country a reactor operates in.

The NRC said it acknowledges the discrepancies and has pledged to investigate why they exist.

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