The only nuclear power plant in Kansas now has one of the lowest safety ratings in the nation and will face increased federal oversight because of an unplanned shutdown in January, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Friday.
But a spokeswoman for the Wolf Creek plant said it quickly corrected the problem and is committed to operating safely.
The commission said the Jan 13 shutdown at the plant in Burlington, about 55 miles south of Topeka, had “substantial safety significance.” The commission concluded that the plant’s operators didn’t provide enough oversight for contractors working there in April 2011, and improperly connected electrical wires led to an electrical short nine months later, triggering the shutdown.
NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said the commission dropped Wolf Creek into the third lowest-rated category for the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors. Only seven other reactors have the same status or lower, Dricks said.
“As their performance declines, we allocate more resources,” Dricks said. “We conduct additional inspections, which the licensees pay for.”
But Dricks said Wolf Creek also has corrected the wiring problem and changed its procedures for overseeing contractors’ work. The commission will provide additional oversight to see that the changes are effective in preventing future problems, Dricks said, but he couldn’t say how many additional inspections Wolf Creek will face.
Wolf Creek spokeswoman Jenny Hageman said the plant not only corrected the problem that led to the shutdown but also did extensive inspections to ensure that the problem didn’t exist elsewhere at the plant.
“At Wolf Creek, operating the plant safely is our highest priority, and we take the NRC’s finding seriously,” Hageman said in a statement. “Our corrective actions are focused on enhancing oversight of work and the people who perform it at the site.”
The plant, which began operations in 1985, can generate enough electricity for 800,000 homes. Its operating company is owned by three utilities — Westar Energy Inc., based in Topeka; Kansas City Power & Light Co., headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas Electric Power Cooperative Inc., also based in Topeka.
The NRC said the electrical short on Jan. 13 prevented the transfer of power to a transformer, which ultimately cut the plant’s connection to the electrical grid. But the commission said safety systems responded as expected and emergency diesel generators automatically powered safety equipment.
Dricks said Wolf Creek will remain listed in the NRC’s third “column” for nuclear reactors for a year as the agency assesses the actions the plant has taken.
A majority of U.S. reactors, 62, are listed in the first column, meaning they meet all safety requirements. Another 34 are listed in the second column, meaning they have one or two items to be resolved, Dricks said.
The third column also includes three reactors in New Jersey and one each in Florida, Michigan and Ohio, Dricks said. Only one reactor, Browns Ferry near Athens, Ala., is in the fourth column. None are in the last column, where a listing would warrant the plant being closed, Dricks said.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov/
Wolf Creek nuclear power plant: http://www.wcnoc.com
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