State, Vermont Yankee enter homestretch in relicensing process

Vermont Yankee, photo from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Vermont Yankee, photo from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The Public Service Board last week held its final day of hearings on whether the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant’s continued operation is in the best interest of the public and therefore merits a new license.

The two weeks of rebuttal hearings roamed in topic from decommissioning to the plant’s economic status to thermal discharge into the Connecticut River to the trustworthiness of the plant’s operator — Louisiana-based Entergy Corp.

Parties to the case are slated to file briefs to the board by mid-August and reply briefs by Sept. 12.

Geoff Commons is director of public advocacy for the Public Service Department and is overseeing the case for the executive branch.

“The board has a huge record in front of it,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll issue a strongly considered and tightly worded order. I would expect them to take six weeks to two months from the end of the reply briefs, but there is no deadline for them to rule.”

The Public Service Department is charged, in part, with representing the interests of the public in Public Service Board proceedings and argued against Vermont Yankee’s continued operation. Vermont Yankee officials believe the plant’s record substantiates its relicensing for another 20 years.

The final witness the board heard from was Peter Bradford, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission officer and a former chair of Maine and New York’s utility regulatory commissions.

In the final testimony, the board and Bradford focused on the importance of accurate information in the regulatory process and how the board should determine whether to permit the plant.

“Does there come a point … where a board would reasonably say enough is enough?”

June Tierney, general counsel for the board

 

June Tierney, general counsel for the board, alluded to past “discovery disputes” with Entergy and referenced an incident in which Entergy Vice President Jay Thayer testified under oath in 2009 that he didn’t “believe there is active piping in service today carrying radionuclides underground.”

As Thayer told VPR’s John Dillon at the time, he erred on two fronts: The plant does have underground pipes in use, and Thayer failed to correct the record.

During this time, the plant was grappling with leaks of the radioactive isotope tritium, and its 40-year operating permit was due to expire. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the plant’s federal license in 2011, and a subsequent federal court decision in 2012 barred the Legislature from shutting down the plant — a decision that the state is appealing. The plant has been operating under an extension of its previous state permit, and the Public Service Board’s decision is expected to determine the future of the plant.

In light of the plant’s history and Thayer’s inaccurate testimony, Tierney asked Bradford: “Does there come a point … where a board would reasonably say enough is enough? We’ve been trying to get a message across to you and you’re not getting it. And no, we’re not going to find that it’s in the public good for you to continue to operate. Is that a reasonable thing for a board like this to conclude?”

“It’s conceivable,” Bradford responded. “But the granting or withholding of a certificate rarely comes down to one area of misconduct.”

Bradford reminded the board that they are “entitled to” regulate based on the plant’s economic impacts, rates, land-use impacts and decommissioning issues. Safety falls under federal jurisdiction, and federal preemption was the basis of Entergy’s successful lawsuit against the state.

“I would be most drawn to the economic impact issues, the overall economic well-being of the state and how it’s affected by whether the plant is operating, not operating, operating under different management,” Bradford said.

Bradford also said that the board should consider whether Entergy is a fair partner.

“Can you count on them to do their part constructively and in a trustworthy way in Board proceedings?” he asked. “Beyond that (being a fair partner) does include the representation of other parties in terms of their interactions with Entergy, and whether they have been denied in terms of the state interests.”

Environmental groups, who were parties to the case, raised a red flag during the recent hearings, saying that Entergy provided relatively inaccessible data about the plant’s effects on the temperature of the Connecticut River.

“It was a large amount of data,” Commons said. “To be useful, it has to be in a form that another expert can manipulate it, analyze it, use it, and that means providing it as a live working spreadsheet. Instead of providing it in that form, Entergy provided it in PDF format, which is essentially screenshots of the pages in Excel.”

As VPR reported, board Chair James Volz said Entergy “ambushed” the groups by handing over the data right before the hearings.

The one element of Vermont Yankee’s arguments that caught Commons a bit off guard, he said, was the breadth of Entergy’s federal preemption claims, or the range of regulatory arenas that the company argued the state was preempted from controlling based on federal jurisdiction. Bradford, too, was indignant about this tactic.

“I would be beside myself over … the ways in which preemption arguments are being used before the board today,” he said.

Bradford reminded the board that renewing a license, which has expired, is different from taking one away.

“It’s not quite the same as a revocation situation,” he said. “There are a lot of situations in utility regulation in which a certificate or a franchise expires and has to be renewed. And it’s a good time to take a look at whether this owner is the right owner even if the franchise continues, and whether this management is the right management.”

Correction: The NRC renewed Vermont Yankee’s federal license in 2011.

Andrew Stein

Comments

  1. Bob Orleck :

    Sure sounds like the deck is stacked against Entergy. I am more concerned about the over effects on our wonderful Vermont when I think about the Governor wanting to see wind turbines on all the ridgelines. Talk about environmental and economic destruction. And what will we get out of it. Higher taxes, an ugly state, pockets of special interests padded and so many beholden to our misdirected politicians that they will be elected again to make things get even worse for our children in the future. I sure wish people would open their eyes and see what this liberal establishment is doing to us.

  2. gary sachs :

    Firstly Mr. Stein,
    ENVY received their NRC relicense within 1 week of the March 11, 2011,
    the ongoing Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. Not in 2012 as you say.

    Secondly Entergy has handed over massive amounts of Discovery
    information in horrible formats back in the sale and uprate cases too.

    • Andrew Stein :

      Dear Gary,

      Thanks for pointing out the error with the NRC relicensing date. That was a typo that made its way through our editorial process. The date has been corrected, and so has the link to the story that lays out the background of this issue.

      Best,
      Andrew

  3. Howard Shaffer :

    As a supporter of Vermont Yankee, I suggest that they have been a very good partner, overall, to the state and the region. I believe they will be a better partner in the future, whether they are operating or not. If not operating, they will be there for at least six years for decommissioning in the minimum physically possible time, and probably much more because of lack of political solutions.

    The article focuses on one communication mistake-the tritium leak, and what was said about piping just a few months before that. The mistake was not using enough words to describe the situation. Using common words, “underground” or “buried” with special technical meanings, mislead the Legislature and public. What they should have said was “There is no piping carrying radioactive fluid subject to regulation, that is in direct contact with soil.” The river is naturally radioactive and flows in concrete piping in direct contact with soil-i.e. “buried” but is not regulated for radioactive content.

    The tritium leak was discovered by Vermont Yankee as part of the required environmental monitoring program. As a final backup to all the system instruments, the surrounding environment is sampled too. The total amount of tritium was small. I carry around more tritium than leaked, in the EXIT sign which I displayed to the Legislature.

    Vermont Yankee has not been perfect, as opponents require of nuclear power. If wind turbines were required to be perfect, where would we be with them?

    • John Greenberg :

      Howard,

      You are, of course, entitled to your opinions, but not to your own facts, insinuations, and misleading inferences.

      1) “… they will be there for at least six years for decommissioning in the minimum physically possible time, and probably much more BECAUSE OF LACK OF POLITICAL SOLUTIONS.” (emphasis added) Aren’t you forgetting a little something?

      Entergy’s own decommissioning estimate is roughly $1 billion. The funds available in the Decommissioning Fund are roughly ½ of that right now. Unless you believe that during the 6 years following closure, the costs of decommissioning will remain totally unchanged, while the money in the Fund DOUBLES, Entergy will, indeed, be there longer than the minimally required 6-years, but NOT “because of lack of political solution.” That ASSUMES, of course, that Entergy’s estimate is not too low in the first place, which given the nuclear industry’s track record on such things, is a very generous assumption indeed. The complete inadequacy of available funds is the main reason Entergy is pushing so hard to delay decommissioning well beyond the minimum period. That too has nothing to do with any “political solutions.”

      2) Regarding the tritium leak and the testimony at the Board by VY officials, you’re simply mistaken. Jay Thayer was asked about underground piping at the PSB, specifically IN RELATION TO THE COST OF DECOMMISSIONING. He understood the context perfectly well: the issue was whether or not there could have been leaks at Vermont Yankee similar to those at Maine Yankee which added millions of dollars in unexpected costs to decommissioning. His audience was NOT composed of technical people who might have cared HOW such contamination would occur. It was an audience of lawyers and regulators who were trying to look into dollar amounts. In other words, the context was financial, not technical. (As Entergy repeatedly asserts and as all those present at the Board would, I suspect, have agreed, the technical aspects of such questions are exclusively reserved to the NRC and are preempted by the Atomic Energy Act.)

      Moreover, having said he would check and confirm his statement through a second witness, a second VY employee essentially repeated the error a week later, thereby sufficiently confounding the Vermont State nuclear engineer that he too testified that such an event as he had personally witnessed while overseeing decommissioning at Maine Yankee was not possible in Vermont. So not only did Entergy fail to correct Thayer’s error, its second witness compounded it sufficiently that those involved in the case decided that VY is unique among nuclear plants, and that such a problem could not occur. Yet, as you note, roughly ½ year later, the supposedly impossible leak proved not only possible, but real: tritium was discovered in the soil surrounding the plant.

      This has nothing to do with “the river” being “naturally radioactive” or “flowing in direct contact with the soil;” this is water flowing from the plant TOWARDS the Connecticut River, and contaminating soil along the way.

      Ironically, the result which prompted the original question has already occurred. Entergy has spent tens of thousands of dollars to remediate the problem, and since the plant is still operating, the funds did NOT come as a withdrawal from the decommissioning fund, but rather from operating funds which are not a State concern.

      Finally, however, the misleading testimony cost tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars as a direct consequence of everyone’s having to re-examine the whole voluminous record in the PSB case for false and misleading statements. By that time, the docket was tens of thousands of pages long, and these costs were imposed on ALL parties in the case, not just Entergy. Additionally, it contributed to the Board’s decision to eventually close the CPG docket in question and open a new one, a decision for which Entergy is now suing the State of Vermont in the Supreme Court of Vermont. In other words, this was not just a small, inconsequential mistake.

      It is also worth noting that while Thayer’s false statement is the only one discussed in any detail in the article above, it is not the only one discussed in the PSB case, and is certainly not the only basis for the claim that Entergy may not be an acceptable corporate partner to the State of Vermont.

      3) “I carry around more tritium than leaked, in the EXIT sign which I displayed to the Legislature.” Radiation in any quantity, as I don’t have to tell you Howard, is poisonous to living beings ONLY when it is biologically available to them. Tritium being a Beta-emitter, the tritium in your exit sign – regardless of how much there is – is not biologically available to you.

      When you’re ready to eat your sign, please do let us all know. Until then, the safety inference you’re suggesting to readers is quite misleading.

      • Bob Stannard :

        Many thanks to John Greenberg whose response to Shaffer’s comments included much more thoughtful accuracy. Then again we’ve come to expect accuracy from John. We’ve also come to expect the words of Mr Shaffer to be little more than cheerleading for the industry as well as for this company and its aged plant.

    • Bob Stannard :

      No Mr. Shaffer. Once again you are wrong. The “mistake” was that Entergy knew if provided misleading testimony and had more than a dozen opportunities to correct the record, yet did not do so.

      That, sir, is not a mistake. Now, why would they do this? The obvious answer is that they knew they were going for relicensing both with the NRC and the State of Vermont. Admitting that they had underground pipes that might leak would cause some concern. Remember, Oyster Creek had just been granted a 20 yr extension by the NRC and leaked a week later. Entergy couldn’t run the risk of being compared to this plant (which, of course, would have been a valid comparison).

      So what did they do? They misled the PSB and then made no effort to correct the record. What was the result? They lost the support of their #1 supporter, Gov. Jim Douglas and his administration. What happened to those who lied? They got promoted.

      And as for you, Mr. Shaffer, you’ve been right there by Entergy’s side the entire time. You’ve been their ardent defender. In your eyes they are good people doing a good job and everything’s just fine. Do a little more research about this company for which you don pom poms and a tutu and act as their cheerleader. Take a little time to see who they really are. Or maybe you’re so swallowed up in the benefits of nuclear power that you just don’t care.

      God, I’m glad I’ve retired. I don’t have to spend much of my life caring about people like you anymore. The only real remaining question is if you are retired, why do you insist on being the lapdog for these people? Or maybe you’re not really retired. Who knows? Who cares?

  4. Jim Barrett :

    The PSB is owned lock, stock and barrell by the political left (Shumlin) and therfore should render a big no on everything. Another lwasuit will follow and Vermont taxpayers get to pay for another frivolous lawsuit.

    • John Greenberg :

      “The PSB is owned lock, stock and barrell by the political left (Shumlin) and therfore should render a big no on everything.”

      This is a serious allegation, which cries out for at least SOME evidence.

      In the meantime, however, it is worth noting that all 3 members of the PSB were appointed by Jim Douglas (“political left?”) before Peter Shumlin became governor, some after having been originally appointed by Howard Dean. Just one, Chairman Volz, was re-appointed by Peter Shumlin.

    • Bob Stannard :

      Mr. Barrett, with all due respect your comments prove that you have no idea what you’re talking about. You would be well advised to either keep your thoughts to yourself or learn more about the PSB.

  5. Mike Kerin :

    To all the pro nuclear people; what are you going to do with all the nuclear waste? Why do you want to raise the temp. of the river? What good will it do for Vermont and those folks down river?

  6. Mike Kerin :

    Andrew, are there any updates to this story?

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