September 15, 1999

Con Ed Tells What Closed Nuclear Plant


KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. -- After the Indian Point 2 nuclear power plant unexpectedly shut down two weeks ago, managers focused on maintenance work that they wanted to do and did not pay sufficient attention to an electrical malfunction that eventually led to a low-level emergency, the Consolidated Edison Company said on Tuesday.

The Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission took the unusual step of sending a special inspection team to the plant, in Buchanan, N.Y., about 35 miles north of Manhattan on the east bank of the Hudson River, to figure out what went wrong.

And today, at a two-hour meeting requested by the utility at the commission's regional headquarters here, Con Edison apologized profusely for the Aug. 31 incident, which it said was caused by a management failure.

"We operated in the red region of risk, which is something we avoid at all costs," said John Groth, the company's chief nuclear officer. "We're very embarrassed to be here today," he said.

A Con Edison report, given to the N.R.C. staff today, said that when the plant shut down and the electrical problems occurred, there was about a one-in-500 chance of additional failures that would result in damage to the nuclear core. The report said that the risk was 100 to 200 times larger immediately after the shutdown than when the plant was running.

When the reactor shut down and its electricity was no longer supplying the control room, three emergency diesel generators started up to do that job. The incident became serious when a circuit breaker popped open so that an emergency generator was no longer connected to the batteries and the control room instruments.

At that point, three-quarters of the control room alarms were supplied solely by batteries, which were steadily draining; seven hours later, the batteries died, leading to the low-level emergency.

That level, called "notification of an unusual event," is the first of four levels of emergency for a nuclear plant; the fourth level has been reached only once in the United States, in the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, but first-level emergencies are rare as well.

The Indian Point plant is still shut and Con Ed has not said when it expects to reopen it. But the Union of Concerned Scientists, a safety group, plans to file a petition with the commission on Wednesday requesting that the plant be kept closed until a variety of problems are solved, especially with circuit breakers. The company paid a $110,000 fine a year ago for several infractions, including failing to analyze and prevent repeated failures in circuit breakers needed for safety.

David Lochbaum, the nuclear engineer with the group, characterized the Aug. 31 incident as a "near miss." There was no release of radiation or damage to the plant beyond damage to some batteries, but Lochbaum said it cast doubt on some safety analyses done by Con Edison, which predict that a circuit breaker is likely to pop open just once in 1.4 million years.

Hubert J. Miller, the commission's regional administrator here, said that the breaker problem in August was different from Con Ed's previous breaker problems but that the utility still had to improve its management. He said he was waiting for his inspection team to finish its visit, now scheduled for next Monday.

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