Progress Energy Led U.S. Nuclear Near-Misses, Group Says

Progress Energy Inc., which plans to merge with Duke Energy Corp. to create the largest U.S. utility owner, led a list of 14 near-misses by U.S. nuclear plant operators last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group, said today in a report.

Progress, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, suffered four accidents at three reactors, the group said today in a report written by its chief of nuclear safety, David Lochbaum, a former safety instructor for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“When the NRC tolerates unresolved safety problems, this lax oversight allows that risk to rise,” wrote Lochbaum in the report, which he said is based on NRC data. “The more owners sweep safety problems under the rug and the longer safety problems remain uncorrected, the higher the risk climbs.”

The release of the report came as helicopters dropped water on the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station north of Tokyo to prevent meltdowns of reactor cores and stored fuel after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and backup generators March 11, the worst nuclear accident since Ukraine’s Chernobyl reactor burned in 1986.

Progress was responsible for the most costly event, damage to concrete walls containing the reactor at the Crystal River plant in Florida, which has been shut down for more than a year, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group said.

Meeting Canceled

The NRC said today that it canceled a meeting to discuss the restart of the Crystal River plant following the discovery of a new gap in the concrete containment structure. The plant was shut down in 2009 for a planned refueling outage and during the work, the company found gaps in the structure.

“We have the highest safety standards for our nuclear plants and our employees, and we work continuously to improve safety,” Mike Hughes, a spokesman for Progress, said in an e-mailed response. “We are taking definitive steps to address the issues raised and return our fleet to the highest performance standards.”

The most serious U.S. reactor accident last year occurred when electrical fires at Progress Energy’s H.B. Robinson plant in South Carolina triggered an unplanned reactor shutdown, followed by an “incredibly long series of mistakes” by plant operators that “revisited nearly all the problems” that led to a partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant 31 years earlier, the report said.

‘Acting Responsibly’

At Entergy Corp.’s Indian Point power plant in New York, the NRC has been aware of a leak in the liner of refueling cavity since 1993 and yet allowed the plant to continue operating, putting people living in the area at “undue risk,” Lochbaum wrote. The Indian Point reactor is about 24 miles north of New York City.

The liner was installed to prevent leaking of radioactive material during an earthquake and the chances of that equipment fulfilling its safety function is “nil,” the report said. The two Indian Point reactors are near the intersection of two seismic zones, identified in 2008 by scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who said a magnitude 7 earthquake in the region is possible.

“Leakage has been captured, understood, analyzed and determined to pose no safety issue,” said Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy, in a phone interview. “This is not leakage into the environment that we’re walking away from. We are acting responsibly.”

While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission “often tolerated known safety problems,” the inspectors responsible for detecting potential dangers made “outstanding catches” of safety issues at other plants, the report said.

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