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Peach Bottom nuclear plant gets high marks in latest federal safety review

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a public hearing on the performance of the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant Thursday, April 16. (David Anderson, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station, on the Susquehanna River three miles north of the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania, carries at top safety rating from the agency's latest review.

"Peach Bottom is in a group of top-performer plants," Sam Hansell, the NRC's senior resident inspector for the plant, said during a public open forum Thursday evening to share the results of the agency's 4,700 hours of inspections.

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The forum was held at a local restaurant near the plant in Delta, Pa., about 20 miles north of Bel Air. During the 90-minute forum, which was not well attended, visitors could talk with NRC inspectors, top plant officials and representatives of Exelon Generation, which is a co-owner of the two-unit nuclear plant along with Public Service and Gas of New Jersey.

Hansell said Peach Bottom only had "low-risk types" of violations during 2014, which puts the plant at a "green" safety level, or the lowest level of risk.

"They get credit for running their plant safely," Hansell said of Peach Bottom operators.

Hansell said the open houses are held each year to share the results of the previous year's inspections with the public. He said residents of communities where nuclear plants have more issues are also able to attend public events, but they are more formal.

"It's our job to make sure the plants run safely to protect the public health and safety, and also the environment," he said.

A few people who work at the plant attended Thursday's forum, as did representatives from the Maryland Department of the Environment. One member of the community present not connected to the plant was Harford County resident Donna Ichniowski.

"So far everyone has been very accessible in answering questions and being approachable to answer the questions," she said.

Northern Harford communities such as Darlington, Street and Whiteford are part of the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone around the plant, since they would be among the first to be affected by any emergency at the facility.

Ichniowski, who lives in Street, near Rocks State Park, said she feels safe, despite living within a dozen miles of the nuclear facility.

"In the eight years I've lived here, there's never been any type of scare, and [the plant operators] reach out to the community," she said.

Michael Griffen, the nuclear emergency coordinator for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said he works with Peach Bottom officials and with agencies in Harford and Cecil counties and the three Pennsylvania counties, York, Lancaster and Chester, that also make up the Emergency Planning Zone. He also coordinates with state emergency officials in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

"It's good that both industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can come out and work together to make themselves available," Griffen said of the open house. "It's a good exchange for themselves; it's a good exchange for myself, and anyone in my agency and anyone in the public that can visit in a non-confrontational manner."

The plant has three power-generating units, two of which are operating. The 40-megawatt first unit, which was designed to be experimental, ran from 1967 to 1974, according to Exelon Generation's web page on Peach Bottom.

Unit 2 and Unit 3 have been operating since 1974 and can presently generate 2,296 MW of electricity, according to the web page.

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Federal regulators spent 2014 working with plant operators as they upgraded Unit 2's electrical power output by about 135 MW. The unit could put out about 1,210 MW before the extended power upgrade process began, and plant manager Patrick Navin said the upgrade should be completed in about two weeks.

The improvements include replacing the steam dryers in Unit 2 to handle the greater amount of steam needed to increase power output.

Jim Armstrong, Exelon's regulatory assurance manager for the plant, said the dryers are designed to remove all moisture from the steam generated by the heat of nuclear fission.

Armstrong, who works with NRC representatives, said the dryers "send high-quality steam to the turbine."

He said a second extended power upgrade is planned for Unit 3 beginning this fall when the unit is shut down for maintenance and replacement of one-third of its nuclear fuel.

The process, called as an "outage," takes place every fall as a third of the fuel supply is replaced. Each third lasts two years.

"It has a tankful of gas, good for two years, essentially," Navin said.

Armstrong said "continued improvement" and "being self-critical and identifying and fixing our problems" are keys to the plant's success with regulators.

Hansell said NRC inspectors visit the plant each day.

"We look at what we consider safety-significant and risk-significant activities," he said.

He also said two inspectors are available at all times in case of a plant emergency, and they must live within one to two hours' drive from the facility.

Hansell said he lives near Lancaster, Pa., which is about a 45-minute drive from Peach Bottom.

"I take a lot of pride and responsibility in making sure the plant does run well, not just for the sake of the reactor and the local people, but also my family, who lives in the local area," he said.

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