Lawyers, consultants wrangle over ‘root cause’ of Yankee leaks

Vermont Yankee workers remove soils from the excavation near the Advance Off Gas building. Image from the Vermont Department of Health

The Vermont Public Service Board opened four days of technical hearings Tuesday on petitions from environmental groups seeking to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and revoke its state operating permit in the wake of revelations that the facility was leaking radioactive water into the environment.

A year ago, Entergy Corp., the owner of Vermont Yankee, announced that tritium from the plant had been released into soils on the compound.

In the hearings, lawyers for the New England Coalition, the Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, and Vermont’s Department of Public Service cross-examined Entergy experts about written testimony they had submitted regarding the leaks, their causes, what was released, and what is being done to prevent future leaks.

The “root cause” of the leaks was the most contentious issue.

Timothy Trask, an Entergy engineer, opened the hearings by answering questions from Jared Margolis, representing the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, about Entergy’s root cause analysis report.

Margolis referred to Entergy guidance for root cause analysis, which says that when Entergy has identified a condition as “consequential,” they investigate whether it occurs elsewhere in the plant. Margolis wanted to know how plant officials had investigated whether similar pipes had holes or were in danger of developing holes. After some back and forth, in which Margolis grew visibly frustrated and repeatedly said Trask wasn’t answering the question, Trask said the holes in the pipes were not the “root cause” of the leaks into the environment, but a “contributing cause.” The root cause, he said, was the pipe tunnel. Until the tunnel was breached, there was no leak outside the plant, according to Trask.

Margolis asked Trask if identifying holes in the pipes as a “contributing cause” meant that Entergy’s root cause analysis did not need to evaluate whether similar plant pipes were developing holes. Trask replied that Entergy is “already constantly looking for where that is occurring in the plant.”

Margolis occasionally consulted with Ray Shadis, a consultant to the New England Coalition, who sat by his side during the questioning. Shadis commented during a break in the testimony, “Entergy is straining the definition of ‘root cause.’ If you accept the definition that the leaks in the pipe were only a contributing factor, that means that they need not look at the remainder of the pipes to see if any of them are corroding, being eroded, or about to fail. That’s ideal for them, because it’s a big, expensive operation.”

Trask said the holes in the pipes were not the “root cause” of the leaks into the environment, but a “contributing cause.” The root cause, he said, was the pipe tunnel. Until the tunnel was breached, there was no leak outside the plant, according to Trask.

Larry Smith, communications manager for Vermont Yankee, insists the plant has “defense in depth” against future leaks, including moving inaccessible pipes above ground, to where they can be inspected, and 20 monitoring wells that can indicate a leak has occurred.

Smith accepted that this analogy explains Yankee’s concept of “root cause”: In a car crash where the brakes fail and then the air bag fails and the driver is injured, the root cause of the driver’s injury is the air bag failure, and the brake failure is a contributing cause.

Two informed Yankee observers, neither of whom attended the hearings, had differing views on the root cause analysis.

Neil Sheehan of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said there was no one root cause, but a combination of problems—the holes in the pipes and the flaws in the pipe tunnel. He expressed confidence in Entergy’s root cause analysis.

Arnie Gundersen, a member of the Vermont legislature’s Public Oversight Panel, said the panel had concluded that Entergy’s analysis was “flat-out inadequate,” and that the root cause of the leaks was the lack of a questioning attitude by Entergy’s management. He cited five sink holes that appeared in the soil around the nuclear power plant in 2008 and 2009, which indicated there was water in the soil. Yet Entergy officials, he said, never asked why they were there. Entergy “never points the finger at management,” Gundersen said, “It’s always some component.”

Later in his testimony, Trask would not commit to inspecting all the buried and difficult-to-access pipes at Yankee, but he said their program would use the nuclear industry’s best practices to sample them.

He did not know how extensive the samples would be or when the inspections will be completed.

“Inspections” may not be visual at all; Trask said monitoring wells—which indicate a leak has occurred when it is detected outside the plant—are a type of inspection. In response to a Public Service Board member’s question, however, Trask agreed that finding radionuclides in a monitoring well means “the horse has left the barn by the time you realize you’ve got a problem,” and that there can be a “substantial release into the environment” before they figure out there’s a problem.

Other witnesses at the hearing discussed sampling procedures and results for heavier radionuclides like zinc and cesium and indicated that there had been no soil testing for other, non-radioactive substances.

The hearings continue through Friday.

Carl EtnierCarl Etnier

Comments

  1. Bob Stannard :

    The real “root cause” is that this plant is at the end of its designed life cycle. It’s simply too old.

  2. Jim Matteau :

    The article states that “Smith accepted that this analogy explains Yankee’s concept of ‘root cause’: In a car crash where the brakes fail and then the air bag fails and the driver is injured, the root cause of the driver’s injury is the air bag failure, and the brake failure is a contributing cause.”
    If you have a hole in an upstairs water line in your house, and water leaks through the floor and ruins the living room walls, would you say that the root cause was a poor seal around the bathroom floor, or might you say it was from a hole in the pipe?
    I enjoy ‘fun with words’ as much as the next guy, but puhleaze!

  3. Mike Kerin :

    Entergy does NOT care about the safety of Vermont, it only cares about the bottom line!

    • I like imagining Entergy executive’s candid remarks about Vermonters.

  4. You show me people arguing over root cause, I will show you people who have financial, legal, or ego interests at stake. I also will show you double-talk. This article describes a great example. Entergy wants to haggle over which link in a series of events is the root cause of radiation leaks, because their liability varies official findings of root cause. Discussions like that are not about engineering truth.

    How about this for root cause? The leak was caused by the presence of a nuclear power plant. No power plant = no radiation leak.

    Here is another one. You show me engineers or executives arguing with public common sense over how things work, telling us to suspend disbelief, 999 times out of a 1000 I will show you engineers or executives trying to do something dangerous or counterproductive.

  5. If Entergy were to describe their sewage treatment system as “robust,” they would expect you to think of a state-of-the-art municipal waste-water system complete with constructed wetlands, aerators, and chlorine finishing. But anyone who has put up with Entergy’s lies, half-truths, and obfuscations over the years would suspect they were actually talking about an outhouse. The people of Vermont were fooled for about 8 years, but they have caught on. Entergy’s credibility is in the toilet.

  6. Whenever someone tells you that they have found “the root cause” ask the following questions:

    1. What were the other harmful factors that have equal or better claim to be called “root causes” in accordance with the organization’s own definition of “root cause?”

    2. For each of these “root causes” ask, “What were the factors that directly resulted in the nature, the magnitude, the location, and the timing of that “root cause?”

    If you do the above you will begin to understand how superficial and bureaucratic the investigation was.

    Take care,

    Bill Corcoran
    Mission: Saving lives, pain, assets, and careers through thoughtful inquiry.
    Motto: If you want safety, peace, or justice, then work for competency, integrity, and transparency.
    Method: Mastering Investigative Technology

    W. R. Corcoran, Ph.D., P.E.
    Nuclear Safety Review Concepts Corporation
    21 Broadleaf Circle
    Windsor, CT 06095-1634
    860-285-8779

    Subscribe to “The Firebird Forum” [email protected]
    Join the group advancing the practice of root cause analysis/ evaluation Root_Cause_State_of_the_Practice-[email protected]

  7. Sally Shaw :

    The argument about “root cause” is a graphic example of NRC and Entergy double-speak. This time, even their supporters have to see the absurdity of it. It’s time for Vermont to run these folks out of town on a rail. I have been asking why there was no groundwater monitoring for tritium and other radionuclides for years–before uprate, before relicensing. Finally, after the horse has left the barn, they install wells, and we find that what I warned about was true. Now they tell us these same monitoring wells are their substitute for “inspection,” of their underground plumbing. By analogy, do we have to wait for their dosimeters to tell us when a catastrophic containment failure has occurred because they are too cheap to inspect other likely root causes? What else are they hiding? Inoperative safety valves? How about a little probabilistic risk assessment, boys? (1) what can go wrong, (2) how likely it is, and (3) what might be the consequences. 1) Old pipes can leak. 2) When some 40 year-old underground pipes which transport corrosive and embrittling radioactive liquids fail, how likely is it that others might fail also? 3) Is radioactive contamination of surface or groundwater that is in contact with drinking water aquifers acceptable to the affected community? Earth to PSB: Don’t wait. Revoke the CPG!

    • Maybe this explains Louisiana Entergy’s desire to be the “root seller” .. huh?

  8. Daniel Bradt :

    The root cause is Entergy basic mind-set/concept of running a nuclear power plant. They chose to manage it instead of operating it. Management is what the name implies, they manage things,people, organizations, etc. Operations on the other hand run things, i.e., they operate and maintain systems for the betterment of the enity, operations are agressive by nature and dig in and find things that might cause problems immediately or in the future to the operation/organization and come up with ways to fix or mitigate those issues…managers do not.

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