VY in 2011: Tritium, strontium, steam leaks and lawsuits

Monday January 2, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- As 2011 drew to a close, those opposed to and those in support of the relicensing of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon waited impatiently for a decision that would determine its fate.

But as the clock ticked down to 5 p.m. on Friday, it was apparent that Federal District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha needed more time to decide whether the state had overstepped its bounds when it refused to issue a certificate of public good for the plant's continued operation.

When Murtha will issue his ruling is unknown at this time, but most observers believe it will be well before Yankee's 40-year license expires on March 21, 2012.

Whatever his decision, there is no doubt that the plant, which received a 20-year extended license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March 2011, will continue to operate, as either the state and Entergy, which owns and operates Yankee, will appeal if Murtha rules against them.

Entergy contends that the Vermont State Senate based its decision to forbid the Public Service Board from issuing the CPG based on safety, which is under the sole purview of the federal government.

The state can base its decision only on reliability, economic issues and environmental impact. The state contends the Senate was well within its rights to make the decision it did and it wasn't based on safety.

It's up to the judge to decide who has the strongest case.

Seven senior operators are suing the state over its decision not to issue the CPG on the grounds that it threatens their livelihoods. Judge Murtha is also hearing that case, which has slowly been wending its way through the system.

In Washington, D.C., the state and the New England Coalition filed a complaint against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission contending it had issued Yankee's new license even though its application was missing a water quality certificate. The state claims the water certificate is necessary for issuing a new license. The NRC says the state had plenty of time to point out the omission. The state replied it's not Vermont's job to insure the application is complete, it's the NRC's job. New York State has signed on as a friend of the court in the case.

The cleanup of a leak of tritiated water that was discovered in 2010 continued. Contaminated groundwater was extracted from the ground and levels in monitoring wells declined from highs of more than 2 million picocuries per liter of water.

In late 2011, the Vermont DOH discovered tritium in the river itself, which had migrated from under the plant, but at levels just above detectability.

Strontium was found in fish in the Connecticut River but the Vermont Department of Health and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services maintained that the levels were consistent with fish found around the world and were attributable to above-ground nuclear testing from the mid-20th century and the Chernobyl meltdown in the 1980s.

In October, a technician accidentally flipped the wrong circuit breakers and shut down a non-safety related cooling system. That same month, a technician accidentally disconnected a fuel line to a diesel generator meant to supply power to the plant's cooling system when the reactor is offline. An electrical system in the plant's recirculation pump shorted out in late September. Also in September a faulty chiller valve meant to keep safety equipment cool threatened the shutdown of the plant but was fixed before it reached a crisis point. Leaks were discovered in a steam trap, the high-pressure coolant injection system and in three of the plant's four safety relief valves.

In November, the emergency sirens located in the EPZ around the plant accidentally sounded, scaring more than one person in the 10-mile safety zone.

The plant underwent an 18-month refueling outage in October, supplying the plant with enough fuel to keep operating into 2013.

Entergy and Yankee employees donated thousands of dollars and hundreds of person hours to various charities in and around the region, including contributing to the clean up of Irene damage and keeping Project Feed the Thousands going strong.

The Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel held its first meeting under the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Public Service Elizabeth Miller. By all accounts, the meeting was much more congenial than in the past.

The disaster at Fukushima led many to question the ability of a plant such as Yankee to withstand an earthquake or other disaster. The earthquake that rattled the East Coast in August brought those fears close to home for many people. Yankee was unaffected by the quake.

An arsonist set fire to the Yankee headquarters office on Old Ferry Road in September. It was closed for repairs until December. No suspects have been identified.

An emergency drill conducted by FEMA in April was rated an overall success, though there were some communication glitches between various town emergency operations centers, the state and Yankee.

The New England Coalition celebrated its 40th year in opposition of the plant's operation.

Concerns were raised about the condition of electrical cables not meant to be submerged that were, in fact, submerged. The NRC and Entergy reassured the public that everything was copasetic and they were keeping an eye on the situation.

After nearly two years of investigations, the Vermont Attorney General ruled that Entergy representatives did not knowingly give false information to state regulators during hearings to determine whether Yankee should receive its CPG.

An Ohio utility reportedly expressed interest in purchasing several of Entergy's nuclear power plants, including Yankee, in May. The potential deal never went further than preliminary discussions, partly due to the Senate's refusal to issue a CPG.

Vermont Business Magazine ranked Vermont Yankee as the third best place to work in the Green Mountain State.

In March, the Agency of Natural Resources began its review of Yankee's water quality certificate, which could take years to resolve.

State environmental groups are exploring whether Yankee violated Vermont's public trust doctrine when it leaked tritiated water into the ground.

The NRC concluded that spent nuclear fuel -- AKA nuclear waste -- could be stored safely at nuclear power plants around the country "for centuries."

Meanwhile this year, the senior citizens of Shut It Down Affinity Group were arrested at both the Yankee gates and at the headquarters on Old Ferry Road in Brattleboro. They've been getting arrested for years, but only most recently has the state's attorney's office decided to press charges. They are expected to be arraigned in court in the next few months.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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