State concerned about future contamination at Vermont Yankee

On Jan. 29, a security guard at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant sat on a radioactive contaminant located on the stairwell in the reactor building. When the problem was discovered, his pants were removed and shipped to Texas for low-level radioactive waste disposal. The state was not notified of the incident, but Entergy says it was included in a daily report to the state.

“It’s not the best way for us to be in the know about things,” said Bill Irwin, chief of Vermont’s radiological health program. “But we have asked Entergy when incidents are of this nature, to let us know.”

The incident points up broader concerns the state has about how much radiological contamination is present at the Vermont Yankee site, which shut down last year after 42 years of operation. The Vermont Department of Health says Entergy has not given the state enough information to ensure there is no risk to public health and safety, among other concerns.

“We’re actually lucky that we bargained for the site assessment study,” Irwin said. “But there still is not enough for us to really understand that the environment and the public’s health and safety would be adequately preserved by the work of Entergy alone.”

Since the plant was powered down on Dec. 29, Entergy has requested permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to eliminate off-site emergency planning and a real-time emergency monitoring system. The state is appealing the NRC’s initial approval of Entergy’s proposal to back away from the safety protocols.

Vermont Yankee cooling tower collapse, 2007
A cooling tower at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant collapsed in 2007

Entergy has also not agreed to continue sending the state radiological contamination testing samples from monitoring wells around the plant. The state used these samples to monitor the radioactive isotopes tritium and strontium-90 in leaks near the plant compound in recent years.

“We have to rely on Entergy for some samples that they take on site. We had hoped for assurance that they would continue to take those samples,” Irwin said.

The state says Entergy should continue monthly sampling from all 32 groundwater monitoring wells and three drinking water wells until the plant is decommissioned. Entergy sends some of these samples to the state for testing. Irwin said Entergy pays about $375,000 per year to support the state’s monitoring. He said Entergy has not committed to fund the monitoring program beyond April 2016.

Entergy said it is not required to provide the test samples to the state under federal regulations. For now, the company says it will keep the monitoring in place. What happens in the future can be discussed with the state, according to Martin Cohn, a spokesperson for Vermont Yankee.

“At this time, we are not changing our protocol for monitoring at Vermont Yankee,” Cohn said. “We are committed to be fully compliant with any and every NRC requirement going forward.”

The state is also concerned that the company has not fully evaluated the radiological condition of the site. The state says there are 1.3 million gallons of contaminated water stored at the site that was used to cool nuclear fuel. There are also thousands of linear feet of pipes, tanks and other system components containing dry radioactive material, Irwin said.

“Absent all of that information about what the site characterization truly is, we really have difficulty being certain of what could transpire,” he said.

Cohn said Entergy will provide this information to the state when the company begins decommissioning. Entergy has agreed to begin decommissioning 120 days after a decommissioning trust fund grows enough to cover the entire $1.2 billion estimated cost of decommissioning. Entergy says decommissioning will begin by 2052 or sooner.

But the state is concerned the discovery of potential radioactive contamination will increase the cost of decommissioning the plant. The state has not received any assurance from Entergy Vermont Yankee, a limited liability company, that its parent company will pay for any cost overruns. A company official said there would be litigation if the cost exceeds the amount set aside trust fund.

According to Cohn, it would be speculative to assume the cost to decommission the plant will rise due to newly discovered contamination. He said it is also possible the fund will grow much faster than the current rate.

Arnie Gundersen, a Burlington-based nuclear engineer, is among those who say unanticipated radiological contamination is known to increase costs of decommissioning. When Connecticut Yankee, another nuclear power plant, discovered strontium-90 after closing in 1996, the cleanup increased the decommissioning cost by $1 billion. Connecticut Yankee was a utility financially back by ratepayers. Vermont Yankee is a merchant plant owned by a corporation.

Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said he was “a little” concerned that the cost to decommission the plant will exceed current estimates.

“I’m am optimist,” Recchia said. “The fact that Entergy has decided to pay for the spent fuel movement through a line of credit helps tremendously. That’s $143 million that’s not going to come out of the fund.”

The CitiBank loans will be used instead of removing money from the decommissioning trust fund, which will allow the fund to grow faster and hasten the decommissioning timeline. But an increase in the cost of decommissioning could delay the timeline as well.

The recent discovery of strontium-90 indicates that there is much the state doesn’t know about the condition of the site, Recchia said.

“And anything we find out is not going to be good news,” Recchia said. “We are only going to find out information that we don’t know now, which is not going to be helpful in terms of cost overall.”

The state on March 6 asked the NRC to hold an adjudicatory hearing on the company’s decommissioning plans. The NRC has yet to respond.

While the company still owns the plant, the state wants to know of any issues involving radiological contamination. Even if that amounts to a single speck found on the pants of an employee.

“Absent that notification, it doesn’t allow us to contribute to the incident response in a constructive manner,” Irwin said. “It may give some people the perception that things are being hidden and that’s unfortunate.”

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