N-reactor an outage away from rating cut

By DAVID BENSON Staff Writer,
(Published: January 3, 2008)

In the world of nuclear power, three strikes don't take a company out of the game.

But a fourth strike in less than 12 months means federal umpires will take a much closer look at how a nuclear facility is operating. And closer federal scrutiny could hurt a company's bottom line, a federal spokesman said Wednesday.

Salem Unit 1, a nuclear reactor owned by PSEG, shut down unexpectedly Friday after a power transformer failed, which tripped two of the plant's four reactor coolant pumps.

That was the third unplanned shutdown for the nuclear generating unit in less than a year, said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"If the reactor has one more unplanned outage on or before March 31, 2008," Sheehan said, "it will result in Salem 1 crossing from 'green' to 'white' in the performance indicator for unplanned scrams."

That shift in colors means a degraded safety rating and more federal inspectors on the floors of Salem Unit 1, Sheehan said. Those inspectors would keep a closer eye on how the nuclear facility operates for the next 12 months.

"Companies want to maintain green performance indicators," Sheehan said. "Market analysts are always looking for ways to judge planned performance for a company. The Wall Street people keep close tabs on how these plants are performing."

The performance of nuclear plants is posted daily on the NRC's Web site. Investors refer to the federal Web site for a long-term look at companies, Sheehan said.

Salem Unit 1 was shut down twice before during the past 12 months when river grass clogged the rotating intake screens that protect the cooling system for the reactor. This third unplanned shutdown means the plant must stay online through the end of March to avoid any increase in federal oversight.

Norm Cohen, a spokesman for Unplug Salem, said the faulty transformer that caused the coolant pumps to trip is just part of an ongoing problem at the Salem facilities.

"PSEG has had a history of not maintaining electrical system as well as they could," Cohen said. "Nothing has changed."

And while Cohen believes both of the Salem units in Lower Alloways Creek Township should be shut down, he doesn't think increased NRC scrutiny will have much of an effect at the plant.

"The fact that they might get more inspections doesn't really change anything," Cohen said. "It's just more paper to push around. Salem 1 and 2 are aging nuclear plants that should be shut down when their 40 years are up."

Darlene Yuhas, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said it was too early to speculate on whether the state would get involved.

"We do maintain an open dialogue with the NRC," Yuhas said. "Depending on what course of action they might take, then we would make a decision as to what our involvement might be."

Chic Cannon, a spokesman for PSEG, said the NRC's assessment is correct.

"This is our third shutdown in a calendar year," Cannon said. "The last time was in April."

The heavy river grass that caused the last shutdown won't be a problem for the plant during the winter months, but could be an issue before the three-month time period set by the NRC is over.

"The grassing period," Cannon said, "is typically March 1 through April 15."

To e-mail Dave Benson at The Press:

DBenson@pressofac. com