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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  • Clay Turnbull, Trustee, New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution

    Coincidence of timing. I was reading the following when this vtdigger story hit my Inbox.
    “Experience at CY [CT Yankee] has shown that the amount
    of soil contaminated was greatly increased by the spread of contamination mobilized by groundwater. Early monitoring can allow steps to be taken to minimize this effect.” The above is an excerpt from Connecticut Yankee Decommissioning Experience Report by EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) here

  • Mike Kerin

    There would have been money enough to clean up and decommission VY if Gov. Douglas had done his job instead of pandering to Entergy.
    ” Governor Jim Douglas has vetoed a bill that would have required Vermont Yankee to guarantee there’s enough money to dismantle the nuclear plant when it shuts down.”
    The quote is from ;

    You don’t have to believe me but the story is true, so believe it.

    • Kevin Daniels

      That bill would not have withstood the legal challenge Entergy would have certainly brought if it had actually passed.

      If the state wanted to have so much control over VY, maybe they shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to sell it to Entergy.

      • Mike Kerin

        We will never know if the Bill would have withstood the legal challenge. Douglas did what Entergy wanted him to do. Hmmm? One has to wonder what actually happened ?

  • Again I think this points to the fact that our administration was is such a hurry to shut the VY plant down for political brownie points that they didn’t do their homework during the negotiations for the shut down process during the decades it will take. Again the ready, shoot, aim process and poor management become obvious. In the end Vermonter’s will pay for future law suits and any disasters that may take place. Thank your Governor and his lieutenants for doing such a poor job on behave of the citizens of our state.

  • Ralph Colin

    The sudden and rapid retirement of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant was probably largely due, at least in part, to the governor’s long-standing, politically inspired blitzkrieg to eliminate its continued operation. Behind his onslaught was, among other things, his desire to gain financial support for his various election campaigns from anti-nuke individuals and gaggles across the country whose primary objectives are/were to dismantle to nuclear power industry altogether. It turned out to be one of his singularly successful enterprises as governor despite the fact that it has resulted – and will continue to result – in the substantially increased costs all of us will have to pay for electricity for years to come.

    Pressure was applied on Entergy/Vermont Yankee to rush the shut down of the plant without a carefully considered pre-plan, perhaps resulting in a number of serious problems down the line, possibly including unforeseen emergencies, the avoidance of which could have been averted had there been measured and sensible management of the process at the state government level.

    However, the need to briskly and haphazardly claim the political victory by the governor and his partisan coterie was given higher priority in order to bring in the moola necessary to finance the then upcoming re-election campaign.

    This suggests that if, at sometime in the future, critical problems occur which bring about the necessity for lawsuits against those who are considered to have had responsibility for the matters which bring about the the bones of contention,
    the governor may have put himself in the unfortunate position of being one of the defendants.

    One’s hastily and poorly conceived plans for taking advantage of a problematic situation often result in an unappetizing denouement. Selfish and reckless mistakes frequently result in having to pay a high price for their perpetration. .

    • Steven Targett

      But the Gov. did not shut down VT Yankee, Entergy did.

      How much longer do you think that plant would be safe to operate given its current safety record?

      How much do you think it will cost to monitor that high level Nuclear waste for 240,000 years?

      What do you think people will say in 1,000 years about trading 40 years of power for eons waste management?

      Still sound like a bargain on your electric bill? This is what I would call a “Selfish and reckless mistakes”.

  • John Greenberg

    Kim Fried and Ralph Colin:

    Kim Fried writes: “our administration was is such a hurry to shut the VY plant down for political brownie points that they didn’t do their homework during the negotiations for the shut down process ….”

    Ralph Colin makes essentially the same argument: “The sudden and rapid retirement of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant was probably largely due, at least in part, to the governor’s long-standing, politically inspired blitzkrieg to eliminate its continued operation.”

    These statements are simply wrong and have no basis in history. I have already written at considerably length and in considerable detail to correct Peter Yankowski’s argument on this point, so rather than repeating the arguments here, I’ll refer readers to the discussion we had in the comments here:

    The upshot is that the decision to close was Entergy’s; the State had virtually nothing to do with it, and to the extent it did, the consequential decisions were made during the Douglas administration.

  • John Greenberg

    Kim Fried:

    1) “As usual in your quest to support the Governor ….” You assume that I support the governor. On some issues, I do; on others, I don’t.

    For example, I totally disagree with him on taxes, to cite one example, and have repeatedly endorsed policies directly opposed to those he supports: e.g., raising marginal rates on high income earners and carbon taxes.

    On the other hand, the governor (since he’s been governor) and I do agree on Vermont Yankee and other energy issues. But years ago, when he was my state senator, this was often NOT the case. The governor believed that the plant SHOULD operate until March, 2012, but not after. I’ve opposed its operation for decades.

    In short, my relationship to the governor and his policies is a good deal more nuanced than you appear to believe. Not that I owe you any explanations.

    2) “… you completely miss the point.” Not so. You choose to ignore the basic facts that closing Vermont Yankee was Entergy’s decision not Vermont’s, and more importantly, that Vermont’s role in ANYTHING concerning the plant was and is severely constrained by federal preemption. I laid this out in some detail in the discussion to which I’ve already provided a link.

    So, for example, you write: “There was long and “serious” discussions, supposedly, between the parties, Vermont State Government and Entergy on the strategy on how to close the plant safely.” When? Which representatives of “Vermont State Government?” I know of no such conversations, other than the negotiations which took place AFTER Entergy decided to close the plant.

    If those are the discussions you’re referring to, you need to realize that, as I just said above, Vermont has NO say in “on the strategy on how to close the plant safely.” That’s STRICTLY a matter for the NRC. Those discussions which took place after Entergy announced its decision involved the few matters which ARE within the parameters of Vermont’s regulatory purview: namely, the non-radiological aspects of decommissioning and the granting of a CPG to allow the plant to operate during the months between the closing date and the MOU which resulted from the negotiations, etc.

    The issues which you (and Peter Yankowski) seem to think are within Vermont’s purview to negotiate are all issues that are regulated by the federal government, and legally preempted to Vermont: when to begin decommissioning, the amount of money in the decommissioning fund and how its funds can be spent, the safety of decommissioning, etc. Indeed, it’s for this very reason that they are being raised by the State in the one forum where they CAN legally be raised, which is in NRC proceedings. And it’s unsurprising that, in each case, Entergy and Vermont take opposite positions on these questions.

    If these are NOT the issues to which you’re referring, you need to be more specific as to what you think anyone in Vermont failed to accomplish. In the absence of such specifics, I am forced to conclude that, like Peter, you simply don’t understand how nuclear power is regulated in the US.

    3) I am not part of ANY team, but more specifically, I have nothing whatever to do with DPS or this administration.

    Twenty-five plus years ago, I did represent the New England Coalition for a few years, and, as such, I was also part of a small group which wrote Vermont’s law on disposing of “low-level” radioactive waste. Members of the Kunin administration were also part of that group, as were representatives of VY. Since then, I have been a “lone wolf,” as it were.

  • Don Jackson

    Given the state and antis record, I would propose it’s they who don’t understand how nuclear power is regulated.

    BTW John, your link to the discussion you reference goes right back to this story.