Entergy grapples with groundwater infiltration at Vermont Yankee

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in a swimming pool inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

VERNON – The Intex “Easy Set” swimming pool retails for anywhere from $35 to $500 depending on its dimensions, and it’s billed as one of “the easiest family and friend-sized pools to set up in the world.”

But in Vernon, the Easy Set is serving a much different purpose than the one advertised on the manufacturer’s colorful website: It’s being used to help manage a complex groundwater-intrusion problem at Vermont Yankee.

Photos submitted to VTDigger show several blue pools marked with yellow radioactive warnings due to the full load of contaminated water inside. Pumps and hoses are connected to the pools in some images; others show large “bladders” apparently filled with water nearby.

While the setup may appear haphazard, Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan expressed confidence that the liquid – which he said contains “very low levels of tritium” – is being handled safely while plant owner Entergy develops a longer-term plan for managing radioactive water at the Vernon plant.

Vermont Yankee

A bladder used to store contaminated waste water at Vermont Yankee.

“The pools are located in the lower level of the turbine building and placed such that any leakage would drain into the plant’s radioactive waste treatment system,” Sheehan said. “Also, the company has moved to using more robust bladders to hold the water. The pools filled with this low-level (radioactivity) do not pose a threat to public health because of its location inside the secured building.”

Entergy Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn echoed that, saying “there is no health or safety impact to the public or employees from this issue.” The swimming pools are a temporary measure, he added.

“The integrity of the pools was found to be adequate and the water found to be acceptable for those types of pools,” Cohn said. “Drains near these pools lead to sump pumps, which in turn lead to a waste-processing system.”

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in an open swimming pool inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee stopped power production in December 2014, and the NRC last year removed its resident inspector from the site. But the federal agency has continued periodic inspections, and the groundwater issue first surfaced in the NRC’s fourth-quarter report released in January.

That document says that “radioactive water inventories were increasing due mainly to the intrusion of groundwater.” Officials wrote that Entergy had been considering options both to stem the flow of groundwater and to eventually dispose of it.

After the inspection report was released, Sheehan said the problem is occurring on the lowest level of the plant’s turbine building. Groundwater intrusion has been averaging a few hundred gallons daily, Sheehan said, but there had been “occasional spikes” that on one day rose to 1,500 gallons.

Entergy has a water-management plan and has been pumping and storing groundwater, which is considered contaminated due to its contact with the building. In early February, a total of 90,000 gallons had been collected.

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in a bladder inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Groundwater intrusion was anticipated and in some ways is a symptom of the plant’s shutdown, since heat from power generation previously had caused some of the liquid to evaporate. But officials said they had not expected so much water to arrive so quickly.

Entergy, according the the NRC, has taken steps including hiring a contractor to seal cracks and drilling “interceptor wells” to capture and pump out the water.

But photos from inside the building submitted this week to VTDigger show additional methods for storing the collected liquid.

Sheehan said the large bladders are standard procedure for storing contaminated water. “The bladders – these heavy, rubberized-material containers – are used at many plants,” he said. “So that’s an acceptable storage method.”

The pools, on the other hand, are meant as a short-term stopgap while Entergy attempts to address the issue, Sheehan said. “The water in the pools has very low levels of tritium, not much above the (federal) limit for drinking water – though, of course, this water is not being used for drinking-water purposes,” Sheehan said.

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Officials said the federal limit for safe drinking water is 20,000 picocuries of tritium per liter. To explain the radioactivity of Vermont Yankee’s stored groundwater, Sheehan used millirems – a measurement for radiation doses.

“To put that into perspective, anyone drinking water at the (federal) level would experience about 4 millirems of radiation exposure,” Sheehan said. “The average American is exposed to about 610 millirems of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.”

Officials maintain that the Yankee water is being contained and “does not pose any threat to public health and safety.” In addition to environmental controls, security is tight: Tall fences and armed security forces still guard the plant’s vital infrastructure inside what’s known as the protected area, and any visitors are pre-screened and constantly escorted.

Vermont Yankee

A caution sign on a swimming pool in the basement area beneath the Vermont Yankee reactor containing contaminated water.

The submitted photos also show several types of signs bearing contamination warnings in the water-containment area. “As for plant workers, they are trained in dealing with such material, including approaches to limiting exposure, and the areas must be properly marked,” Sheehan said.

Regardless of any short-term storage solutions, Entergy must come up with a plan for getting radioactive water off the property eventually. And that plan stretches beyond the groundwater issue, as the NRC has said there are more than 1 million gallons of water at Vermont Yankee including liquid stored in a large, donut-shaped reservoir at the base of the reactor building.

Entergy has requested NRC approval to ship about 200,000 gallons of radioactive water to Idaho for disposal. There also has been preliminary talk of possible discharges into the Connecticut River, though any such plan would come under intense scrutiny by state regulators.

Sheehan said Thursday that the NRC is still “awaiting additional information from Entergy on its broader plans for addressing radioactive water at the site.”

Groundwater contamination at Vermont Yankee also is monitored by the Vermont Department of Health. Bill Irwin, the department’s radiological and toxicological sciences chief, said he has requested a meeting with Entergy administrators regarding the groundwater-intrusion issue.

But Irwin added that the state does not have jurisdiction in this matter. “The management of water within the plant is an Entergy VY and NRC issue,” Irwin said. “The Health Department’s particular interest is, though, when water from the plant moves from inside the structures, systems and components into the environment for potential impacts on the public.”

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in an open swimming pool inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in a bladder inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in a swimming pool inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in an open swimming pool inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in an open swimming pool inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in a bladder inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in an open swimming pool inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee

Contaminated water in an open swimming pool inside the basement of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee.

Mike Faher

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  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan’s words prove conclusively that the NRC is a wholly owned subsidiary of the nuclear power industry.

    When he says “To put that into perspective, anyone drinking water at the (federal) level would experience about 4 millirems of radiation exposure, the average American is exposed to about 610 millirems of radiation each year from natural and manmade [sic] sources,” he knows he is being dishonest. Sheehan wants you to focus on how tiny 4 millirems is when compare to 610, but Sheehan also knows that exposure to radiation is cumulative.

    If you stand outside receiving 610 millirems of background radiation and someone plants a pool of contaminated water next to you delivering another 4 millirems this does not mean you only are getting 610 millirems. It means you are now receiving 614 millirems worth of exposure.

    Now go ask your doctor how much radiation is considered risk free.

    Any radioactive contamination put out by Louisiana Entergy Yankee is an absolutely controllable man made increase to a background level we cannot control. Sheehan knows this. The NRC knows this. Louisiana Entergy Yankee knows this. And now you do too.

    • joe perry

      As a retired Nuclear trained CPO I am amused that you think you know what you are talking about. All radiation is not the same, the 4 millirems is from gamma waves, easily stopped and definitely NOT adding to the background radiation outside of the lower level of the turbine building. If people realized how much nuclear contamination we are exposed to daily from Chinese coal fired plants, they would freak. But by all means lets rant and rave about something we do not understand, that is the real issue.

      • Chris johnson

        I also was a nuclear trained chief petty officer..(CPO) (or maybe you mean the civilian semiequivalent chief plant operator? ).. You should also know that radiation is in fact accumulative… While 600 mrem over a or maybe ok since we have adapted to it, 650 mrem over a year may NOT be ok, as it is too quick of a change too fast for our cells to adapt and heal themselves.. The Roentgen Equivalent for Man (Rem) is used to measure the biological effects on the body due to radiation..it as an exponentially effecting variable not a linear one..1 mrem/h = 8766 mrem/yr… You said the normal back round radiation is 610 mrem IN AN ENTIRE YEAR… By not telling you time variable they are using to determine Rem (usually COUNTS PER MINUTE!!! CPM).. That means you are getting 4 x 60 =240 mRem per hour.. Which is 240 x 8766 = 2,103,840 mREM PER YEAR… the background levels are 610 mrem/yr Sound safe to you ?????

    • Howard Shaffer

      If all radiation exposure damage is cumulative, then you must have all the sun tan/burn you ever got. You don’t? Then it healed! High levels of radiation will cause enough damage to have long lasting effect. Allowed exposure levels are all in the sunburn – caused by nuclear radiation form the chain reaction that is the sun – range.

      • Howard, you know that is a disingenuous statement.You know as well as I that the cumulative effect I’m referring to is from current sources and not a function of time. You are deliberately mixing in a topic I wasn’t referring to. (For anyone who doesn’t believe me simply go back and read my original comment.)

        The damage, however, CAN be cumulative over time – ask you doctor how many sun burns are safe for you and what repeated burning will do.

        • Jacob Gregory

          The cumulative effect can only be expressed as a probability of increased risk of ill effects. Since it is a stochastic process there is no certainty in expressing a small increase in risk to one individual. Only if an exposed group is monitored over a long period and the occurrence of ill effects compared to a cohort that had no exposure can you say with any degree of certainty that illness resulted from the exposure. Small doses spread over time tend to “blend in” with “background” effects such as lifestyle choices, medical exposures, and the like. The model currently used (Linear No Threshold, or LNT) is controversial because it really doesn’t have reliable data on deleterious effects at low lifetime exposures. There appears to be a threshold below which no reliable predictions can be made. LNT may likely be modified to allow for such uncertainty.

    • Tom Clegg

      Rama NO YOU DO NOT RECEIVE 614 MILLI REMS.. Just like Joe says you prove you know nothing about radiation. What you leave out is that about every three feet you move away from the source of radiation you cut your exposure in half. So unless you plan on living next to the pools you will receive NO exposure from this source.

  • Nancy Bryant

    Once again corporations rarely do what is right for the people. Our Governor did not require enough from Entergy. I don’t trust them. Vermont residents are going to get screwed on this deal. Time to take them to court.

    • Jacob Gregory

      On what grounds? They are not in violation of any regulation. Tritiated water is basically harmless. They have had federal oversight of their operations. Sounds like a weak case at best on fabricated grounds. But, wasting taxpayer money going after Entergy is what Vermont does.

      • Sally Shaw

        A big THANKS to Mike Fayer for this report and the pictures. Tritiated water is not harmless. There is no safe level of exposure to radiation, especially internally, according to the National Academy of Sciences. It crosses the placental barrier, causing even greater risks to pregnant women and fetuses. It is a beta emitter with a half life of 12.3 years. The bigger problem is, since it moves more quickly through groundwater than other radionuclides, it’s presence usually predicts the presence of the usual suspects: Strontium 90, Cobalt 60, Cesium 137, radioactive isotopes of Zinc (and their equally or even more radioactive daughter products), Plutonium, etc. etc. More questions need to be asked here. The first being, where is the contamination coming from? Is the fuel pool leaking? Groundwater always increases in the Spring. How are they protecting the Vernon aquifer? I hope the State of VT says a big fat NO to dumping it in the CT River, as I, and many farmers who use the water for irrigation live downstream.

        • Jacob Gregory

          The “no safe level” boogeyman is a result of a misapplication of acute exposures at high doses extrapolated to chronic exposures at low does. It is a complete misrepresentation of the facts, which are that there is no data showing a conclusive link between chronic low level exposures and deleterious health effects. The only thing you can reasonably do is a statistical analysis of large groups of exposed individuals compared to a similar group with no exposure. Even then the predictions are only statistical, and cannot be applied to single individuals. The model developed for the extrapolation, called Linear No Threshold (LNT) is controversial and in any case was never intended to construct the “no safe level” paradigm, because there are no reliable data at low exposures, especially for chronic exposures to low energy, short biological half-life radionuclides. There is no contamination of groundwater because it appears that the groundwater is an intrusive process. It is coming in from the outside and then picking up contamination somewhere. It is not contaminated water flowing out. The water is appearing in the turbine building lower levels, much like a wet basement in your home.

      • Bruce Brown

        Tritiated water is NOT harmless. Although it does not penetrate unbroken human skin, if it is ingested as drinking water or as a food component, or if its vapors are inhaled, it is hazardous. It is particularly hazardous if ingested or inhaled unknowingly over a period of time. This is a danger, since it is odorless and flavorless, and therefore can easily be ingested or inhaled unknowingly.

        • Jacob Gregory

          Man, you’ve got a bad case of FUD-induced radiophobia. Tritiated water IS harmless in the amounts we’re talking about. Sure, if you drank 100% concentration tritium in your lifetime water intake you might raise your internal dose to the point of having maybe another 0.0000001% chance of developing a tumor, but otherwise it is completely harmless, especially if isolated from the environment. The material emits very low energy beta particles. Its biological half-life is extremely short, so casual exposure carries very very very low risk. So stop with the FUD.

  • John McClaughry

    I wish this obviously diligent reporter could get to the point: what is the source of the tritium entering the building via groundwater? The article says the water is “considered contaminated due to its contact with the building”. So before entering the building, the water wasn’t contaminated, but it seeped through a subsurface foundation crack into the building and now it’s contaminated? What was inside the turbine building that contaminated it? If zero water had seeped in, wouldn’t the same amount of tritium be found inside the building anyway?
    Then we have this: “anyone drinking water at the (federal) level would experience about 4 millirems of radiation exposure,” [NRC official Neal] Sheehan said. “The average American is exposed to about 610 millirems of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.” Does this mean that drinking one liter of the “contaminated” water delivers 4 millirems, and drinking one liter per day for a year delivers 1,460 millirems? Or what?
    This has all the earmarks of a non-problem, but it comes across as “flimsy plastic pools of radioactive death accumulating in Vernon.”.

    • John McClaughry

      Further: I checked this with a physical chemist: Anyone drinking 2 liters of water at the allowable level of tritium, every day for a year…would get 4 millirems of exposure in that year, or about the same as two cross-country flights or a dental X-ray. http://yesvy.blogspot.com/2010/01/tritium-and-health.html#.Vscn6DZdL3E
      This is a ridiculously small level of exposure – to a person hiding in the basement of the turbine building and drinking 2 liters of “contaminated” water for a YEAR.Starvation and mold would be far greater threats.
      Is there some reason why the news media aren’t allowed to explain this?

      • Chris johnson

        Ok do the math. One person drinking this water one time is exposed to 4 mrem. A person continuously drinking this water over the just over the period of an hour would receive 8766 x 4 =35,064 mrem per year. The background is 610ish mrem per year… Very dangerous

        • Jacob Gregory

          You don’t understand basic dosimetry. You are assuming a rate when the actual value (4 mrem) is a yearly dose commitment. Internal exposures from tritium-bearing water at the EPA limit would produce nowhere near a 4 mrem/hr rate. Furthermore, internal dosimetry must take account of biological half-life, which is very short for tritium and your simple calculation does not take explicitly into account. That is why we speak in terms of total dose commitment, not a rate.

  • Bruce Lierman

    Thanks for the great pictures.

  • Jamie Carter

    ““To put that into perspective, anyone drinking water at the (federal) level would experience about 4 millirems of radiation exposure,” Sheehan said. “The average American is exposed to about 610 millirems of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.””

    And how many millirems are in this tritiated ground water? How did you manage to leave out that information but thought this was relevant :

    “The Intex “Easy Set” swimming pool retails for anywhere from $35 to $500 depending on its dimensions, and it’s billed as one of “the easiest family and friend-sized pools to set up in the world.”

  • A large number of experiments with animals and cell cultures show that exposure to tritiated water results in mutations and cell disruptions that can lead to the health effects possible for ionizing radiation cancer, heritable genetic effects, and reproductive and developmental effects.

    Because tritium has physical properties that are similar to hydrogen’s, it acts much like hydrogen in the environment and the human body. Like hydrogen, it can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.
    See sources at SanOnofreSafety.org.

    • Jacob Gregory

      That is not a credible source. Peer-reviewed science shows that the low-energy beta particle emitted by tritium causes no measurable harm in small doses. Citing ideologically-driven anti-nuclear groups as sources does not enhance credibility.

    • Tom Clegg

      Donna tritium is a natural element in hydrogen there for water is H2O which means tritium is a natural element in water. So don’t drink water or shower. Or maybe you don’t shower already. Having been around anti-nukes it smells like they gave up showering.

    • Thanks Donna for an actual cited reference to offset all the STUFF the guys are spouting. So glad someone knows how to look up data and cite a REFERENCE> Now if Entergy would actually REPORT the quantity of tritium in the water (why isn’t this type of data required to be in the public record..or is it and the reporters don’t know how to find it?), and also not get away with statements like “a couple hundred gallons” followed by “as much as 1500 some days” while another Entergy person says “3500 to 5000 gallons,” maybe we could do some real calculations and not just listen to all the noisy men arguing.

      By the way, all this water has been coming into the building for a long time, according to Entergy, but has not accumulated before because of the heat in the building. If I can read through their double-talk, I think that means the tritium has been escaping into the air in the past. So the calculation needs to include the time element to determine just how much tritium has been leaked without measurement or report over the years.

  • David Bresett

    Sounds like a $100 pool is the fix here. Just about as flimsy as any Government plan can be. The next thing is, when the pool runs over the sides, they just walk away shaking their heads. Very sad and very sick plan to fix a NUCLEAR POWER PLANT CONTAINMENT problem!!!

  • Gary Murdock

    Here’s another way to look at this:
    Kudos to Entergy and the NRC for implementing a simple, extremely cost effective solution to a non- issue.
    Now, can we get this team to look at Vermont Health Connect?

  • Alan Goldblatt

    So yes, what exactly *is* the level of contamination of this water? Listing the federal limits for drinking water is not helpful if there’s no data from the power plant to compare it to. It *might* be a non-issue, or it *could* be a major hazard.

  • Steve Beck

    is not sure what is funnier/sadder to read about, VT Yankee or VT Health Connect. THis stuff makes my head explode.

  • Christopher Hayden

    So…..they built this rickety crappy nuke plant right beside the Connecticut River (where it could melt down and poison the whole northeast) and then they ran the shit out of it and wore it out and now it is decommissioned but effectively just as dangrous as if it was running. And now that they are not making any money from the production of electricity, they are storing radioactive groundwater seepage in plastic swimming pools from Walmart.

    Let me guess – the plan is every 10,000 years someone will have to suit up and go in there to make sure the pool isn’t deflated.


    • Jacob Gregory

      Did you read the article? It is noted clearly that these are temporary measures. Most reasonable people would understand that temporary doesn’t mean 10,000 years. It also noted that the storage is within the turbine building, which is a secure structure and has an isolation sump to recover any water reaching the floor drains. Sheesh, don’t you people understand anything, even when it is written in plain English?

      • The turbine building cannot be secure if water is leaking IN! So much for SAFSTOR! The policy for VY! This facility should be de-commissioned without waiting before we start storing it in huge tanks as in Fukushima .

        • Jacob Gregory

          Inward leakage is ALWAYS MORE MANAGABLE than OUTWARD leakage!! Fukushima contamination had FISSION PRODUCTS, NOT TRITIUM, as well as OUTWARD LEAKAGE!! The building IS SECURE if all you have to deal with is INWARD LEAKAGE!! Its basically like dealing with a WET BASEMENT!! You don’t necessarily have to TEAR DOWN YOUR HOUSE over that!! SAFSTOR is the policy for VY!! SAFSTOR has nothing to do with a groundwater intrusion in the TURBINE BUILDING!! SAFSTOR must guard against materials in the REACTOR CONTAINMENT being released TO THE ENVIRONMENT, not the REVERSE!!!

  • Clara Schoppe

    I just wish a new administration would apologize to Entergy for the actions of the outgoing governor and ask them to restart the nuclear plant that provided so many Vermont families with good jobs and and so many more families and businesses with affordable energy.
    I also wish the new administration would outlaw all the large scale solar and wind farms that are ruining our land, endangering our people’s health, and the building and maintenance of which are so energy intensive.

    • Dan Field

      Amen! I miss my home, friends and family in Western MA; I had to move with the closure. That fact that that plant ran for over 42 years producing safe, clean, inexpensive power is an awesome accomplishment that every worker should be proud to say they were part of! I know I am! The fact that we kept millions of tons of carbon out of the air, kept Vermont’s landscape green and were able to give back hundreds of thousands to the local towns and donate countless hours to worthy causes over the years. And to the struggling families across Vermont and Western MA, I’m sorry I can no longer assist with producing this low cost energy that we all need.

      • Peter Sipp

        Hi Dan, I can understand, having worked at the place a feeling of pride. I am not able to assist a nuke however. My conscience will not let me. There are so many reasons why not. As a non-union pipe welder, I have worked on many non nuclear jobs. So having to move around is a reality. Cheers, Pete

  • First, thanks for story. As much as there’s a lot of work to investigate and (pardon the pun) ‘expose’ what is happening at this plant, the reality is that the public (and media reporting on such issues) is largely uneducated and / or ignorant of what’s important with regard to to public safety / health issues surrounding nuclear power plants. That’s convenient for both the pro and anti nuclear agendas, and often not used in the best interests of the public at large. While it has clearly been unpopular for those raised in American culture with an average public high school (and college) education to shun science, opinions are nonetheless formed and shared based on some mix of convenient scientific facts (often not understood or misapplied to the context at hand) and (sometimes) emotionally-driven popular conjecture from either side of the nuclear issue. My wish would be for the public at large to become educated on the real science associated with these matters to understand what the risks are to them and their communities, so that they would provide valuable input into solving the problem rather than pointing out what they see as wrong, but don’t really understand what is wrong or why it is wrong. That being said, I applaud the efforts and direction of the Vermont Department of Health and their keen sense of understanding where the greatest potential risk to public health and the environment exists – moving the water out of the plant and risking leakage and / or spilling it in an uncontrolled fashion.

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