As Susan Schwartz of the Press Enterprise reports from Salem Twp., PA, three senior reactor operators at the Susquehanna nuclear power plant (see NRC file photo, left) have been temporaily suspended, pending retraining:
Three senior reactor operators have been temporarily disqualified after they took a safety system offline before shutting down a reactor at the Susquehanna nuclear plant in May, regulators confirm. A nuclear watchdog believes the operators did it in an effort to avoid shutting down the unit, an expensive move for the plant.
Susquehanna has two reactors, both Fukushima Daiichi sibling designs. Susquehanna Units 1 and 2 are General Electric Mark II boiling water reactors.
The article, which reports the incident took place at Unit 2, quotes Dave Lochbaum of UCS:
But David Lochbaum, nuclear safety project director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he suspects the operators disabled the safety system to buy themselves time in the hope of avoiding the shutdown.
If the high pressure coolant injection system is triggered, it can cause the unit to shut down automatically, said Lochbaum. He’s a nuclear engineer who worked 17 years in the industry and also a former reactor technology instructor with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
He believes the operators hoped that by delaying the automatic scram, they would give workers time to fix the electrical fault and restore proper cooling and ventilation so the reactor wouldn’t need to be shut down.
But before they took the safety system offline, they didn’t check to make sure nothing was happening that might require it to work.
“They breezed through that step,” he said. “They put the operation of the plant ahead of safety. They took some shortcuts.”
‘Mistakes were made’
That attitude contributed to the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, he said.
Operators there misdiagnosed a problem with the reactor and shut off the safety systems, explained Lochbaum. If they had left them alone, he says the safety systems as designed would have saved the day.
The Susquehanna Steam Electric Station was nowhere near such dire straits, Lochbaum stressed.
“It’s unfortunate mistakes were made, but the system is pretty robust,” he said. “It would have taken several more miscues before this event would have resulted in meltdown or core damage.”
In other words, luckily, operators at Susquehanna Unit 2 in 2016 only made one major mistake, instead of several. The March 28, 1979 series of mistakes made at Three Mile Island Unit 2, however, led to a 50% core meltdown, and the worst nuclear power disaster -- thus far, anyway -- in U.S. history.