Agency's top man heads a special inspection team
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission launched a special inspection last week into the circumstances surrounding a new leak in one of the cooling towers at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt. It sent top-level structural engineering specialists to the plant.
In a dramatic move, NRC Chairman Dale Klein dispatched the agency's senior career executive, Executive Director for Operations Bill Borchardt, to the plant to work with the inspectors and plant officials. The decision may have had something to do with the fact that NRC Chairman Dale Klein was testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., wanted to know why Entergy wasn't fined for a cooling cell collapse in August 2007.
"Did Entergy pay any penalty for this glaring mistake?" asked Sanders. "They did not pay one nickel ... for that mishap."
Klein told Sanders that because the failure wasn't considered safety related, the NRC had no authority to issue fines. After the cell collapsed last August, Entergy received a "green" inspection finding, which is the lowest and least severe finding issued by the NRC. It said the finding was for "a failure to effectively incorporate readily available industry operating experience into the tower inspection program and processes."
The latest problems with the cooling towers has the agency's engineers scrambling to get on top of the problem. NRC's lead for New England, Samuel Collins, said,
"While Friday's leak was not in the one cooling cell considered safety-related, we know there is significant public interest in this event. We need to independently verify that the safety-related cell is structurally sound. Even though the remaining cells in the cooling towers do not perform a safety function, we need to understand that Entergy is getting to the bottom of the problems so that the safety-related cell is not impacted.”
According to the Burlington Free Press, the NRC’s press office told the newspaper the NRC executive director of operations routinely visits nuclear power plants, but rarely, if ever, to observe an inspection that is under way. Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the agency, said,
“It underscores the degree of NRC interest in the issue and in its resolution at the highest levels of the agency.” Photo: NRC
New Leaks, More Outrage
Sheehan said the NRC is concerned that problems with the plant’s cooling towers have persisted despite Entergy Nuclear’s work to upgrade the towers’ structures after last year’s dramatic collapse of a portion of the west cooling tower complex.
“We’re concerned because the plant did work last year to get at the root cause of the problem, yet we’re seeing new problems,” Sheehan said.
The state’s Public Service Department, said in a statement the new leak raises questions about how well the plant is being managed.
“This ongoing pattern has once again shaken our confidence in their ability to manage the plant’s systems. They need to improve their maintenance and engineering solutions. They need to take real action to clearly demonstrate to Vermonters that they know how to manage this plant.
Where's a plumber when you need one?
According to NRC documents, the new leak, less severe than last year’s incident that spilled thousands of gallons of water, involves a 50-inch diameter pipe in the plant’s east tower complex.
Vermont Yankee has two cooling towers, each consisting of eleven cells. Only one cell in the west unit is considered to be safety-related. On Friday, July 11, plant operator Entergy informed the NRC that plant personnel discovered a pipe joint leaking an estimated 60 gallons per minute in a non-safety-related cooling cell in the east cooling tower.
The leak occurred when the supply header, which carries 90,000 gallons per minute of water, sagged after the underlying horizontal support beam broke away from the vertical column to which it was bolted.
Minor cracks were also found to supporting members on two of the west cooling tower cells, including one that sustained a pipe break and partial collapse last August. The company reduced power to ensure the plant met Vermont cooling water discharge temperature limits for water being returned to the Connecticut River. The safety-related cell was not affected.
Entergy’s initial review indicates Friday’s leak does not share the same cause as the August 2007 cooling tower collapse, which was attributed to degradation of the wood in the cooling tower. The plant owner is conducting a root cause analysis of the problem. The NRC also will evaluate Entergy’s planned actions to repair the cooling towers and return them to service.
License renewal process will be impacted
The leak and subsequent investigations come at a bad time for Vermont Yankee. Next week the NRC panel is scheduled to begin hearings in Newfane, VT, on Entergy’s proposal to extend the license by 20 years. The plant was built in 1972.
Entergy filed its application for license renewal in January 2006. The NRC usually takes about two years to complete a review and make a decision. This week the agency told Reuters the review of Vermont Yankee will take a lot longer.
The response from groups that oppose license renewal for the plant was swift. James Moore, for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), questioned whether the new leak is evidence that Entergy Nuclear is cutting corners when it comes to maintenance procedures at Vermont Yankee.
“It makes one wonder where else they’ve cut corners. There seems to be a culture of not doing everything it takes to fix and secure that facility.”
Paul Burns, also of VPIRG, blasted what he called the "dangerous level of corporate incompetence shown by Entergy Nuclear and the pass-the-buck attitude of state and federal regulators."
"There is an easily observable pattern here if anyone cares to look. Entergy apparently considers itself above learning anything from its peers in the industry. Had it paid attention to industry experience it would have replaced the structural and design defective towers."
Representatives from both groups called for the immediate and permanent shutdown of Vermont Yankee.
Speaking of Finances
The NRC has turned down the plan by Vermont Yankee to use some of the money from its decommissioning fund for management of the plant's spent nuclear fuel and said Entergy, the plant's owner and operator, has over estimated the fund's likely earnings.
Entergy wants to use some of the money from its decommissioning fund, estimated to be $400 million dollars short of what it needs, to cover the costs of storing spent fuel from the reactor.
In a notice made public on July 17, the NRC said Entergy failed "to provide reasonable assurance the spent fuel management withdrawals would not inhibit the ability of the licensee to complete radiological decommissioning." It ordered Vermont Yankee to "provide a revised spent fuel management plan within 90 days."
The Vermont Legislature this year passed and Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed a bill that would have required Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Nuclear to ensure there would be enough money in the decommissioning fund before being allowed to sell Vermont Yankee and four other nuclear plants to a newly created company.
The AP wire service reported that Entergy has not been making regular deposits into the decommissioning fund since 2002. The NRC reported that there was about $440 million in the fund as of Dec. 31, while other estimates put the cost of decommission at $800 million or more.
The NRC also told Entergy that it had run violated rules that requiring it to get a separate regulatory review if it wanted to estimate growth in the decommissioning fund at more than 2 percent a year.
"A licensee may use a credit of greater than 2 percent and only up to the time of license expiration, if the licensee's rate-setting authority has specifically authorized a higher rate. This is not the case for Entergy VY," the NRC said.
Vermont Yankee spokesman Robert Williams said plant officials had not had time to review the NRC's decision. "We will review the NRC issues and ensure we meet all regulatory and financial obligations regarding the decommissioning trust fund," Williams said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.
In previous posts I've reported that Vermont Yankee accounts for up to half of the electricity supply in Vermont. This figure is incorrect. The real number is about one-third.
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