Entergy has received preliminary approval to operate its nuclear plant near St. Francisville for another two decades, though federal agencies are investigating a power-demand emergency in which two of Entergy's nuclear facilities were down.
Louisiana's two nuclear plants, River Bend in West Feliciana Parish and Waterford 3 in St. Charles Parish are both owned by Entergy and were first licensed in 1985. Each site is currently re-applying for its operating license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would let them run for another 20 years. Each so far has received favorable reviews from the Environmental Protection Agency and the NRC, which have issued draft environmental and safety reports, respectively, that indicate the plants have met their obligations. Final decisions won't come down until winter.
However, recent emergencies have put electricity providers under scrutiny.
On Sept. 15, regional power companies struggled to meet demand and began emergency procedures initiated by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, the non-profit organization which oversees power transmission along the Mississippi River and into the upper Midwest and Canada. Power companies issued alerts asking customers to conserve power during what was known as a maximum generation event. High-level max-gen events can trigger rolling blackouts, though the power shortfall a few weeks ago did not reach that level.
It was the second max-gen event this year. Another happened during a January cold snap. MISO has said the problems resulted from incorrect forecasts that underestimated how much power would be required — off by about 5 percent to 7 percent during September’s heat wave, spokesman Mark Brown said.
The Louisiana Public Service Commission launched an investigation into the cause, and in September the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the non-profit North American Electric Reliability Corporation launched their own joint investigation. In a news release, NERC and FERC said they were looking into issues such as “near overloads during peak hours,” though officials declined to expand on their statement.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials have said that their decision whether to renew a license for a plant hinges on whether the agency considers the plant safe, not on how much power it’s generating. However, while Entergy’s licenses are being reviewed, some are taking the opportunity to take a closer look. In addition to outages, some have raised questions about special inspections following safety incidents and said it’s time for the federal government to move nuclear waste out of Louisiana.
Eric Skrmetta was unequivocal — he wants nuclear plants to continue providing power to Louisiana. The chairman of the state’s Public Service Commission said they’re “valuable components” of the grid and a “good deal for rate payers.”
“We’re fortunate to have it here,” he said.
Nuclear plants provide about 16 percent of Louisiana’s electricity.
Skrmetta said he would like to see an investigation into the max-gen events and would also want a new policy in place so that, when MISO declares a max-gen event, providers are mandated to pump out as much electricity as they can.
River Bend and Entergy’s Grand Gulf nuclear plant just over the state line near Port Gibson, Mississippi, both went down when they were needed in January, and Grand Gulf was down again in September, said Logan Atkinson Burke, head of the consumer-advocacy group Alliance for Affordable Energy. She said Grand Gulf continues to underperform “and yet customers have to pay for it.”
River Bend going offline in January could signal a problem, she said. Burke said her group is waiting to see what the investigations uncover and if, for example the plants are properly weatherized.
The Louisiana Energy Users Group, which represents industrial consumers, is also keeping an eye out.
“For LEUG members, access to reliable and lowest reasonable cost power at competitive rates is essential to be able to compete in a global marketplace and also within their own companies for new and expansion projects. LEUG supports the ongoing efforts of the Louisiana Public Service Commission to better understand and develop solutions to address reliability issues. Having a reliable and competitively priced power supply is essential to Louisiana’s economy,” attorney Randy Young wrote in a brief statement.
Bo Staples, chief of staff for local public service commissioner Craig Greene, doesn’t expect any big retrofits at any of the nuclear plants and pointed out that the state commission would have to approve any major upgrades that would pass costs down to customers.
Entergy spokesman Michael Bowling said the company has invested in nuclear resources such as upgrading analog systems to digital ones and hiring additional staff.
“We work closely with our regulators to ensure investments in our plant are reasonable and benefit our customers. Over time, any facility may require capital investment to extend its life, and we have a rigorous process for evaluating such investments,” he wrote in an email to The Advocate.
Bowling also addressed some of the NRC’s special inspections performed at River Bend, publicized by groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In one 2015 incident, “a periodic test of the plant’s response to a simulated accident condition resulted in total loss of air conditioning for vital rooms in the control building,” and a year later “cooling of the reactor core was interrupted for over an hour … when the reactor was shut down,” wrote the group's Nuclear Safety Project Director Dave Lochbaum, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
Entergy has addressed both incidents with the NRC, Bowling said.
“(Inspection) teams such as these are used to review significant events or issues at facilities licensed by the NRC to help ensure safety rather than to question it, and their involvement helps make us better operators,” he wrote.
“They’ve had issues in the past,” allowed Victor Dricks, spokesman for the NRC’s regional office.
Special inspections are considered when licenses are up for renewal, but all plants have issues at some point, and federal regulators can have confidence that a facility will continue to operate smoothly while also noting areas for improvement, he continued.
Locals don’t appear opposed to a new license for River Bend, West Feliciana Parish President Kevin Couhig said.
“I’ve heard no safety concerns about the operations of the nuclear power plant,” he said.
Couhig had previously aired some questions about the way the facility's taxes were collected but said the issue has since been sorted out. His only remaining concern is about the storage of nuclear waste.
“That’s the only thing that I think people around here would like to see addressed,” the parish president said. “I think people would like to see a more permanent solution.”
Spent fuel rods are stored on-site. The federal government had made plans to accept nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, but politicians there have blocked it from opening.
Skrmetta, the Public Service Commission chairman, said Louisiana ratepayers have helped fund the federal disposal site. It is especially beneficial because once the federal government finally opens Yucca Mountain, fuel rods can be reprocessed to recover about 75 percent of their potential energy, he said.