Public perceptions and NRC regulatory views are at odds with each other
Entergy (NYSE:ETR) must feel that more than a few people got out of the wrong side of the bed this week as it pursues relicensing of two nuclear reactors in New York and one in Vermont. At the Indian Point plant In New York, a combination of unrelated setbacks from technical and financial regulators are making sleepless nights for company managers. At the Vermont Yankee plant, minor leaks of Tritium have raised the profile of a former whistleblower with nuclear engineering expertise who now has the state legislature listening to his recommendation about whether to support relicensing of the reactor.
In New York the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission delayed the review of the environmental section of the license review in response to new information submitted by the utility. At the same time, the New York State Public Service Commission issued a staff report which said the utility’s proposed spin-off of six reactors was not in the public interest.
In Vermont nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson, 61, has become the new best friend of State Senate Leader Peter Shumlin (D-Windham). He’s paying Gunderson $47,000 to review nuclear plant technical issues about relicensing Vermont Yankee and he’s showering the former whistleblower with praise for the work.
According to the Burlington Free Press for Feb 15, Shumlin said, “Arnie Gundersen is the only person who’s been right about Vermont Yankee every time.”
Not everyone shares this view. The Free Press reports that Vermont Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien told the newspaper Gunderson isn’t always right and, “… is eager for attention and barrages officials with accusatory questions.”
NRC delays Indian Point environmental review
For the second time in as many years, the NRC has delayed the scheduled review of the environmental documents that are part of the license renewal schedule. This time NRC has pushed the review back from February 12 to May 31. NRC said the schedule change is needed because Entergy is replacing data on aquatic conditions affected by the plant’s operations and submitted updated analyses on how the utility would respond to a severe accident.
Once the environmental report is issued, the NRC is expected to hold hearings on a series of contentions filed against the license renewal by environmental groups. Riverkeeper, a Hudson River valley green group, argues that the plant should not have its license renewed because it is too old. The group points to a series of Tritium leaks from corroded and aging underground pipes as evidence of their claim.
The NRC told the New York Times on March 1, 2009, the latest release of Tritium, 2,000 picocuries/liter, was one-tenth the permissible level for drinking water. Diane Screnci, a spokesperson for the agency, said,
“There was no threat to public health and safety. There are levels of Tritium that are allowed to be released and this would be well below those limits.”
Indian Point has two operating reactors, the 1,020 MW Unit 2 and the 1,025 MW unit 3. They entered revenue service in 1973 and 1975.
Entergy spinoff blocked by New York
Plans by Entergy to spin-off six nuclear power plants into a new operating entity hit a roadblock this week in the form of a staff report from the New York Public Service Commission. In a document released Feb 11, the staff wrote the spin-off was “not in the public interest.”
“Staff considered the proposed transaction was problematic because the amount of debt leverage employed to finance Enexus was excessive when the business risks of this new merchant enterprise was considered.”
The staff report laid out a series of conditions that would modify the financial principles of the deal. The key elements include reducing the debt by $550 million and assuring the long-term financial viability of the deal through performance and maintaining certain financial ratios for debt, equity, and market value.
Next steps depend on whether the commission accepts the staff report and hold hearings on it.
Six nuclear plants are involved in the deal and three of them are in New York. They are FitzPatrick and Indian Point Units 2 and 3.
Vermont State legislature hires its own expert
Emotions are running high in Vermont over reports of leaks of radioactive Tritium from Vermont Yankee. In the legislature, the pied piper of the moment for anti-nuclear sentiments is, paradoxically, an nuclear engineer and former utility executive.
Vermont State Legislators are listening intently these days to Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer and one time whisteblower, who is now under contract to help them understand what’s going on at the reactor. Gundersen, who once served in a management position at a Connecticut nuclear utility, and is a nuclear engineer, also represents anti-nuclear groups such as the New England Coalition, which is opposed to relicensing the Vermont Yankee reactor.
Gundersen’s standing with the legislature rests on his claims of credit for predicting various mechanical failures at the plant including the collapse of the cooling tower in 2007, cracks in the steam dryer in 2006, and Tritium leaks which showed up in 2009.
David O’Brien, the Vermont Public Service Commissioner, says Gundersen is taking more credit than justified for having insights into failures at the plant. He told the Burlington Free Press,
“Arnie has in some ways been more lucky than right. His argument was that the weight of the cooling fans would cause structural problems. That’s not why the cooling towers failed.”
The problem was caused by wood rot and Gundersen is quick to respond with criticism of Vermont Yankee for failing to maintain the aging structures.
State Sen. Peter Shumlin (left), who is running for governor, has no qualms about leveraging Gundersen’s expertise to engage the legislature over issues regarding the future of the plant. He appointed Gundersen to a state oversight panel in 2008 which some regard as a case of stacking the deck. Rep. Joseph Krawczyk, R-Bennington, was one of them and reminded the Free Press he wrote an opinion piece at the time critical of the appointment.
While Krawczyk and other legislators are willing to listen to Gundersen, they don’t automatically accept everything he says. For instance, they discounted his claims that contamination of the Connecticut River with Tritium was “a certainty.”
NRC discounts claims of danger from Tritium
An official from the Boston office of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission official told a legislative panel by telephone last week that so far it has found nothing to warrant closing the plant.
"And relative to the operation of that plant relative to nuclear plant safety... Entergy Vermont Yankee continues to remain in conformance with all NRC rules and regulations... And remain able to continue to operate that facility."
For the legislature, facts may not be enough. There are allegations that Vermont Yankee engineers knew about the leaks and failed to report them.
In her blog post of Feb 4th, Meredith Angwin looked into these allegations. She writes that state legislators were given pipe diagrams, but paid little attention to them. Also, there were “serious” mis-communications between Vermont Yankee engineers and state officials contributed to the rising noise level.
Commissioner O’Brien gets the last word here. He told the Free Press legislators and the public should be careful and not blow information out of proportion especially if it supports their point of view.
In the poisonous atmosphere in Vermont surrounding the license renewal application for Vermont Yankee, any mis-step on either side is likely to result in a serious crash of public confidence not unlike this video.
It shows how mixed traffic signals resulted in a horrific train truck collision. Luckily, no one was inured in this incident. Will Vermont’s energy future escape unscathed with only the debris of missed signals as a legacy?
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