NRC finds Entergy Safety Commitment Track Record Lacking

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Vermont Yankee nuclear plant officials said Tuesday that a small amount of radioactive tritium was found in a Connecticut River water sample, but follow-up samples showed no signs of it and the finding poses no risk to public health or safety.

Vermont Yankee, which is owned by Entergy Corp., said it learned that a small amount of tritium was found in a sample taken near the plant on Nov. 3. The amount was significantly below the federal drinking water limit, and samples taken Nov. 7 and 10 showed no signs of tritium.

Entergy is suing the State of Vermont, and challenging their authority to deny the operations of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Station.  Investigations by the New York News and others show Indian Point’s fire detection and suppression systems to be woefully inadequate. “Indian Point’s ongoing failure to comply with federal fire safety requirements is both reckless and unacceptable,” says Eric Schneiderman, New York’s Attorney-General.

On July 31, 2002, Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee, LLC (EVY) purchased Vermont Yankee from Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation (VYNPC) for $180 million. Entergy received the reactor complex, nuclear fuel, inventories, and related real estate. The liability to decommission the plant, as well as related decommissioning trust funds of approximately $310 million, was also transferred to Entergy.



In May 2009, the vice-president of operations at Vermont Yankee told the PSB during the reliability review that he did not believe there was any radioactively contaminated underground piping at the plant, but that he would check and respond to the panel.

In October 2009, Arnold Gundersen, a member of a special oversight panel convened by the Vermont General Assembly, confirmed that radioactive contamination had been detected in underground pipes.

An Entergy spokesperson told Vermont Public Radio (VPR) that the earlier testimony was a “miscommunication.”


During the recent refueling outage at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducted a review of a sampling of commitments made by Entergy, the owner and operator of the plant, during Yankee’s license renewal process.

Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC, said while no findings were identified during the refueling outage inspection, “The inspectors challenged the completion of certain commitments.”

The inspectors learned Entergy had made a change to a commitment without following the procedure.

“If they made a change like that and failed to fully document it, we would want to know about it,” said Sheehan.

Commitment No. 6 is part of Entergy’s aging management program to insure the plant’s systems, components and piping can withstand another 20 years of operation.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been unable to take ANY meaningful enforcement action against this industry on repeated violations of fire protection law,” says Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear.  “They tried.  They can’t—or WON’T—do it.”

After six years of staff meetings with industry violators, the NRC in 1998 issued 17 fire protection orders for 24 reactors. Overall, says Gunger, 89 of America’s 104 licensed reactors have Thermo-Lag, a “fire protection” material that’s flammable and in tests has failed to protect electrical circuits vital to shutting down and cooling the reactors in the event of serious fire, as claimed.

But the nuclear industry simply “thumbed their nose at the agency, and submitted unauthorized and unanalyzed programs that in fact allow these critical electrical circuits to burn up.”   For many reactors the plan in case of fire, says Gunter, is now to “send some guy running through the plant to manually operate shutdown equipment that the NRC had ordered to protect circuit integrity and to assure control room operation.”

Since the workers will likely encounter smoke, fire or intense radiation, he adds, the plan is “potentially a suicide mission.”

Rather than meet fire code, the industry staged “a mass civil disobedience.” The NRC, says Gunter, did a “complete retreat” and gave industry “enforcement discretion….There has been no meaningful regulatory control of critical fire protection issues.”  Things are “as bad as they were in 1992.”

In that commitment, Entergy agreed it would use a computer program called FatiguePro to determine cumulative wear and tear to components such as valves, nozzles and pipes, which is meant to inform maintenance and replacement schedules.

During the review in the October refueling, the inspectors learned Entergy had eliminated the FatiguePro program and had switched to what is called “manual cycle counting.”

“This change, in essence, rescinded the commitment …” stated the inspection report issued Thursday. “The inspectors could not clearly determine whether Entergy had met the expectations of the commitment change processes as specified in (regulations) …”

Though the manual cycle counting method is an acceptable practice and is in use at such Entergy plants as FitzPatrick and Pilgrim, said Sheehan, the change indicated more administrative rigor needs to be exercised “as far as the processes were applied to be consistent with NRC notification versus approval.”

The NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation is reviewing the change and another inspection is scheduled for next month, in which commitment compliance will get a closer look, he said.

David Lochbaum, the director the Union of Concerned Scientists‘ Nuclear Safety Project, called the change “deception.”

“Entergy committed to using a computerized monitoring program to track cumulative usage factors,” he said. “The NRC renewed the operating license based on their understanding that a computerized monitoring program was to be used.”

Lochbaum contended that the NRC would not have relicensed Yankee if Entergy had, as in the past, continued to use the manual counting method.

“So the deceitful company promised to do computerized monitoring,” he said. “Then, when the NRC relicensed the plant based on the company’s promises, Entergy quickly backs out of its promise — any of this sounding familiar? — and reverts to manual ciphering.”

Lochbaum put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the NRC.

“Given Entergy’s recurring practice of lying and misleading, only a fool would believe them,” he said. “If Entergy were Pinocchio, one could sport about a thousand pair of eyeglasses on its nose.”

Larry Smith, manager of communications for Yankee, said as the NRC noted, there were no findings identified in the inspection and a number of license renewal commitments were closed.

“Others were evaluated, and we will follow up on those in preparation for another NRC license renewal inspection in January,” he said.

Sarah Hofmann, the Deputy Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, said the department is requesting an explanation from the NRC.

“The department is concerned that Entergy could commit to one methodology for fatigue monitoring and has been allowed to change methodologies with no process or approval from NRC,” she said. “It is critical that Entergy live up to its commitments should Vermont Yankee be allowed to operate after March 21, 2012.”

“This kind of chutzpah is Entergy’s style,” said Ray Shadis, technical consultant for the New England Coalition, which opposes the continued operation of Yankee.

During Yankee’s relicensing application hearing process, NEC raised a number of concerns over the aging of the plant’s systems, pipes and components and FatiguePro was one of the methods Entergy promised to use to monitor aging.

Switching from the computer program to the manual counting method is like “Using a very blunt tool when a very sharp one is required.”

“This change was extremely disrespectful of the regulator,” said Shadis. Entergy didn’t lie, but they changed the rules on a unilateral basis. They said what we agreed to isn’t necessary.”

Shadis said he was surprised the NRC inspectors caught the change.

“The NRC has a very poor record of tracking commitments,” he said, adding the nature of commitments themselves calls into question the whole relicensing process.

“We have always been leery of the idea of issuing a new license based on commitments to be made in the future,” said Shadis, who also put some of the blame on the NRC. “NRC enforcement has more loopholes than the federal tax code.”

Indian Point’s two active reactors are divided into 275 fire zones, of which 198 lack automatic fire suppression systems, according to records that plant owner Entergy gave the NRC in 2009.

That means 72% of the facility lacks things like sprinklers and automatic deluge water sprays.

One vulnerable hot spot is the spent-fuel pool at Indian Point 3, where radioactive and superheated fuel rods are kept cool. A spent-fuel pool triggered Japan’s nuke accident.

Records also show:

  • There are no manual fire suppression systems such as hydrants or fire extinguishers in 111 fire zones – 40% of the plant.
  • Fire detection systems common to most major office buildings such as smoke, heat or flame detectors are unavailable in 173 zones – 63% of the plant.

The data is contained in a little-noticed March 28 petition from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to the NRC alleging that most of the plant’s 275 fire zones violate minimum federal fire safety regulations.

Schneiderman said the feds are too cozy with the industry.

“For years, the NRC has looked the other way as Indian Point ignores the most basic safety standards. With nearly 20 million people living and working within 50 miles … that’s a risk we simply cannot afford,” he said.

In a tour of the plant, Entergy executives said the fire safety performance is “second to none,” noting the firm invests millions to minimize fire hazards and keep a 50-person fire brigade on site.

“Indian Point’s ongoing failure to comply with federal fire safety requirements is both reckless and unacceptable,” he told The News.

The NRC approved the current status of fire safety in the 1980s, but in 2006 it told Entergy to justify in writing why it should keep the exemptions.

That plan, submitted in 2009, is still pending as the plant seeks a 20-year renewal of two operating licenses that expire in 2013 and 2015. Gov. Cuomo opposes relicensing and has called for the plant to be closed.

Source: Business Week

Source: NY Daily News


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