Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vermont Senate votes against reactor

Shumlin thumbs his nose at the White House

denied_stampThe New York Times reports that the Vermont Senate has voted 26-4 to deny Entergy’s (NYSE:ETR) Vermont Yankee nuclear power station a ‘certificate of public good.” The vote against the plant was led by State Senate leader Peter Shumlin.

In effect, the legislature has entered uncharted waters seeking to impose itself on the federal government’s legal authority to regulate nuclear reactors. While the vote has no legal impact on the NRC's authority, it will be widely perceived as an action to close the plant.

In a related move late Wednesday afternoon the NRC issued a “Demand for Information” related to an internal investigation Entergy undertook with an independent law firm to assess whether its managers intentionally misled the legislature over tritium leaks from pipes at the plant. [More on this late breaking news below.]

Shumlin snubs Obama

Peter Shumlin - Photo by Karen Pike With his precipitous politics, State Senator Peter Shumlin, (D-Windsor), (right) who is running for governor as a Democrat, has won no friends at the White House. Just one week ago President Barack Obama committed the significant political capital of his administration to $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees for Southern’s Vogtle site.

In doing so Obama reached out to environmental activists opposed to nuclear energy by pointing to its benefits in the efforts to slow the global growth of greenhouse gases.

Sen. Shumlin’s leadership in the Vermont legislative this week has the effect of thumbing the state’s nose at the spectacular turn around by the President in favor of nuclear energy. Yes, Vermont Yankee has problems, but Shumlin has exploited them, and magnified their significance in the press, as part of his ambitious drive to become Governor of Vermont.

Shumlin also knows many of his constituents feel as one said this week. "I'd rather have my electricity rates go up than be lit up in a meltdown." He draws power from these kinds of perceptions.

FUD no dud and hits with a thud

fear uncertainty doubtThe vote in state senate is a clear case of the triumph of fear, uncertainty, and doubt over science, reason, and facts. At the same time, the plant has been literally its own worst enemy with a series of high profile missteps.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not formally found significant safety lapses. However, the latest uproar over minor leaks of tritium, and the way the utility communicated information about them, may well have tipped the balance in terms of public views about the future of the reactor.

Entergy denies intentional mis-leading statements

The tritium leaks were reviewed by the legislature with testimony under oath from Vermont Yankee managers. Entergy told the New York Times Feb 24 statements the mangers made about underground pipes “were incomplete and misleading.”

The newspaper reported that Entergy spokesperson Craig Hebert said the company took disciplinary actions with “financial consequences” against five employees” involved in the testimony. Another six employees were also taken to task by the company. The release of sensitive personnel information by the firm is an extraordinary step.

Entergy said in a statement issued Feb 24 that an investigation by an independent law firm determined that none of its employees intentionally misled the legislature.

“The report noted that the communications in question were made by Entergy employees in the context of the scope defined by the state’s contractor, Nuclear Safety Associates, in performing the reliability assessment. The Entergy responses were limited to only pipes that touch soil (not those encased in concrete), that carry liquid (not gaseous matter) and that are part of whole systems as defined by law. However, the Entergy employees’ failure to specify the context of their communication led to misunderstandings and, taken out of that context, the responses were incomplete and misleading, the report maintained.”

“As a result of that failure, Entergy has removed five senior Vermont Yankee employees from their positions at Vermont Yankee and placed them on administrative leave. They are the vice president for operations, director of nuclear safety assurance, manager of licensing, technical specialist and senior project manager.”:

“The company also reprimanded an additional six managerial employees. All the discipline taken had financial consequences for the employees involved.
Michael Colomb, Entergy Vermont Yankee site vice president, was reprimanded for failure to maintain an organization that adhered to the highest standards of conduct in all actions and communications.”

“In a statement, Colomb said he was disappointed in how the contradictory or misleading information was given to the state and he, as the lead Entergy official at Vermont Yankee, took responsibility for what happened.”

Exaggeration in defense of the environment is no victory for it

None of this could have possibly helped the utility’s case with the legislature. Just add in prior mishaps involving a cooling tower, a dropped spent fuel cask, and other incidents. It easy to see how the public’s tolerance for things nuclear became frayed and unraveled into the current political mess.

What’s hard to swallow are the duplicitous charges that have been made such as one that weapons grade materials were being made at the plant or that the tritium had leaked into the Connecticut River. The first is technically out of the question and the second is merely an assertion by consultant Arnie Gundersen.

For the curious on the first claim, see Stephen Packard’s outstanding recent post “Why you can't make a bomb from spent fuel.” On the second issue, even state health officials agree their sampling and measurements indicated no tritium has leaked outside the plant boundary.

NRC responds to Vermont Yankee Vote

nrclogoOnly the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the the legal authority to renew or deny renewal of an operating license for a reactor. Entergy has applied for a 20-year renewal. The current license expires in 2012.

The vote in the Senate for now is largely symbolic unless the House goes along. If both chambers agree, the next step will be lawsuits all around. The NRC is unlikely accept the legislature’s efforts to usurp its authority.

In a new developmentr the NRC entered the fray late on Feb 24. Eliot Brenner, a spokesman for the agency, told this blog Feb 24 the NRC was issuing a Demand For Information “… which is a way we as an agency legally communicate with the plant. Responses must be made under oath and carry more weight than an exchange of letters.”

Brenner said the demand for information is based on Entergy’s investigation relative to the testimony by its mangers about underground piping at the reactor.

“The demand for information will require a report on the quality and veracity of the information provided to the NRC. It will cover the safety activities we regulate and their impact on the plant’s safety culture.”

Brenner said the demand for information would be formally released on Feb 26, but he did not know at this time what deadline the NRC staff would set as for a response from Entergy.

Brenner added that he could not comment in response a question about whether the demand for information, and Entergy’s response, would have any bearing on the company’s application for a 20-year license extension.

Here’s the main text of the NRC press release:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will issue a Demand For Information (DFI) to Entergy to determine what, if any, regulatory actions are necessary regarding the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. In accordance with our Enforcement Policy, the NRC staff will issue the DFI to Entergy to provide information under oath to allow us to make this determination. This step is being taken in response to Entergy’s investigation of their interactions with the State of Vermont.

Earlier this month I told the Vermont Congressional delegation that the NRC would closely monitor the developments at Vermont Yankee. Once Entergy responds, the NRC will assess and independently verify the information provided to ascertain the implications on NRC-regulated safety activities and the impact on safety culture at the site. The NRC will determine whether it needs to take any further action.

This is the latest of several steps that the NRC has taken on this matter. Senior personnel will soon arrive at Vermont Yankee to verify assertions and information that Entergy has provided regarding its recent licensing activities. In addition, the NRC has sent a Region I manager to the site to provide additional oversight, augmenting the NRC Resident Inspectors assigned to Vermont Yankee.

Stay tuned . . .

Prior coverage on this blog

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Anonymous said...

Isn't rather unusual for the NRC Chairman to have a press release about issuing a DFI before it is even written or determining concern? The normal practice is for the staff, not the Chairman, to make the determination, prepare the DFI, and then do the press release.

djysrv said...

Accordng the the NRC public information office, the staff made the decision to issue the demand for information. The chairman issued the press release to indicate the serious nature of the action.