Thursday, January 12, 2012

Problems at Palisades—A Case of Normalization of Deviance?

The Palisades nuclear plant is in trouble with the NRC.  On Jan. 11, 2012 the NRC met with Entergy (the plant’s owner and operator) to discuss two preliminary inspection findings, one white and one yellow.  Following is the NRC summary of the more significant event.

 “The preliminary yellow finding of substantial significance to safety is related to an electrical fault caused by personnel at the site. The electrical fault resulted in a reactor trip and the loss of half of the control room indicators, and activation of safety systems not warranted by actual plant conditions. This made the reactor trip more challenging for the operators and increased the risk of a serious event occurring. The NRC conducted a Special Inspection and preliminarily determined the actions and work preparation for the electrical panel work were not done correctly.”*

At the meeting with NRC, an Entergy official said “Over time, a safety culture developed at the plant where workers thought if they had successfully accomplished a task in the past, they could do it again without strictly following procedure [emphasis added]. . . .

Management also accepted that, and would reward workers for getting the job done. This led to the events that caused the September shutdown when workers did not follow the work plan while performing maintenance.”**

In an earlier post, we defined normalization of deviance as “the gradual acceptance of performance results that are outside normal acceptance criteria.”  In the Palisades case, we don’t know anything more than the published reports but it sure looks to us like an erosion of performance standards, an erosion that was effectively encouraged by management.

Additional Background on Palisades

This is not Palisades’ first trip to the woodshed.  Based on a prior event, the NRC had already demoted Palisades from the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) Licensee Response Column to the Regulatory Response Column, meaning additional NRC inspections and scrutiny.  And they may be headed for the Degraded Cornerstone Column.***  But it’s not all bad news.  At the end of the third quarter 2011, Palisades had a green board on the ROP.****  Regular readers know our opinion with respect to the usefulness of the ROP performance matrices.


*  NRC news release, “NRC to Hold Two Regulatory Conferences on January 11 to Discuss Preliminary White and Preliminary Yellow Findings at Palisades Nuclear Plant,” nrc.gov (Jan. 5, 2012).

**  F. Klug, “Decline in safety culture at Palisades nuclear power plant to be fixed, company tells regulators,” Kalamazoo Gazette on mlive.com (Jan. 11, 2012).

***  B. Devereaux, “Palisades nuclear plant bumped down in status by NRC; Entergy Nuclear to dispute other findings next week,” mlive.com (Jan. 4, 2012).

****  Palisades 3Q/2011 Performance Summary, nrc.gov (retrieved Jan. 12, 2012).

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