Thursday, April 12, 2012

Fort Calhoun in the Crosshairs

Things have gone from bad to worse for Fort Calhoun.  The plant shut down in April 2011 for refueling, but the shutdown was extended to address various issues, including those associated with Missouri River flooding in summer 2011.  The plant’s issues were sufficiently numerous and significant that the NRC issued a CAL specifying actions OPPD had to take before restarting.

In addition to these “normal” issues, a fire occurred in June 2011—an incident that has just gotten them a “Red” finding from the NRC.  Currently, it is the only plant in the country under NRC Inspection Manual Chapter 0350, which includes a restart checklist.  As part of the restart qualification, the NRC will review OPPD’s third-party safety culture survey and, if they aren’t satisfied with the results, NRC will conduct its own safety culture assessment.* 

Focusing a little more on Fort Calhoun’s safety culture, one particular item caught our attention: OPPD’s CNO saying, during an NRC-OPPD meeting, that one of their basic problems was their corrective action program culture.  (The following is an unscripted exchange, not prepared testimony.)

“Commissioner Apostolakis: . . . what I would be more interested in is to know, in your opinion, what were the top two or three areas where you feel you went wrong and you ended up in this unhappy situation?

“[OPPD CNO] David Bannister: . . . the one issue is our corrective action program culture, our -- and it’s a culture that evolved over time. We looked at it more of a work driver, more of a -- you know, it’s a way to manage the system rather than . . . finding and correcting our performance deficiency.”**

Note the nexus between the culture and the CAP, with the culture evolving to accept a view of the CAP as a work management system rather than the primary way the plant identifies, analyzes, prioritizes and fixes its issues.  Notwithstanding Fort Calhoun’s culture creep, the mechanics and metrics of an effective CAP are well-known to nuclear operators around the world.  It is a failure of management if an organization loses track of the ball in this area.

What’s Going to Happen?

I have no special insight into this matter but I will try to read the tea leaves.  Recently, the NRC has been showing both its “good cop” and “bad cop” personas.  The good cop has approved the construction of multiple new nuclear units, thus showing that the agency does not stand in the way of industry extension and expansion.

Meanwhile, the bad cop has his foot on the necks of a few problem plants, including Fort Calhoun.  The plant is an easy target: it is the second-smallest plant in the country and isolated (OPPD has no other nuclear facilities).  The NRC will not kill the plant but may leave it twisting in the wind indefinitely, reminding us of Voltaire’s famous observation in Candide:

“. . . in this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time so to encourage the others.”

*  Fort Calhoun Station Manual Chapter 0350 Oversight Panel Charter (Jan. 12, 2012) ADAMS ML120120661.

**  NRC Public Meeting Transcript, Briefing on Fort Calhoun (Feb. 22, 2012) p. 62  ADAMS ML120541135.

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