Entergy says pollution testing could be dangerous

VERNON — Could pollution testing pose dangers at Vermont Yankee?

Entergy thinks so, and the company is using that argument in its latest response to state officials who want more information about contamination at the idled Vernon nuclear plant.

In new regulatory filings, an Entergy administrator says "invasive" environmental sampling could cause radiological and nonradiological contamination to spread. The documents also say such sampling might damage buildings and important underground cables or pipes.

Such a scenario "would not only pose severe safety risks to workers at the site, but also could damage plant systems and equipment that are in use and critical to the safe operation of the site," wrote Joe Lynch, a senior government affairs manager for Entergy.

The context of the contamination debate is Entergy's proposed sale of Vermont Yankee to NorthStar Group Services, a New York-based demolition and cleanup company. NorthStar says it can decommission and restore most of the Vernon site by 2030 and possibly as early as 2026, which is decades faster than Entergy has proposed.

The proposed change in ownership is under review by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Vermont Public Utility Commission.

State officials have said they favor faster decommissioning but worry about NorthStar's ability to fulfill its promises. Contamination has been one point of contention, with state Agency of Natural Resources officials saying they don't believe Entergy has done enough to determine the extent of nonradiological pollutants on the property.

An environmental consultant recently came to the same conclusion, saying there's not enough data to show that Vermont Yankee has been "adequately characterized."

Entergy has pushed back, citing studies performed prior to the company's purchase of the plant; a detailed 2014 site assessment; and a 2017 review that found no signs of recent contamination but did not include any new sampling.

In testimony filed with the Public Utility Commission last month, Lynch said Entergy "continues to believe that additional sampling is not necessary for confidence in NorthStar's (decommissioning) cost estimate given the great amount of prior site characterization done."

Lynch made another statement that has caught the attention of state officials: Additional testing of polluted or potentially polluted areas at Vermont Yankee would "introduce the risk of spreading any potential contaminants," he said.

In subsequent filings, the state Agency of Natural Resources asked several questions about that statement.

Lynch replied by giving examples: For instance, he warned that "invasive characterization and sampling" could "create new pathways for water infiltration" - a problem that's already causing extra work and expense at Vermont Yankee.

Lynch also noted that the plant has "active systems still in place" such as fire-protection mechanisms that rely on underground pipes.

"If sampling activities inadvertently breached a pipe in an active system, the outcome could result in the underground movement of water and the migration of any potential contaminants that lay in the path of the resulting water movement," Lynch wrote.

Lynch said the same principle applies to radiological contamination, which in some instances may be mixed with other types of contamination.

"In that case, any spreading could also create a more difficult radiological decommissioning process and the introduction of mixed waste, which poses more expensive and challenging cleanup," Lynch said.

Entergy also argues that there are buildings and other structures that hinder further environmental testing. Vermont Yankee's turbine building figures prominently into that discussion, as do transformers and underground pipes and electrical systems.

Entergy considered undertaking more environmental sampling within and around such structures, but "the risks were assessed to be too high to proceed," Lynch said.

He noted that those risks will be lower after Entergy finishes transferring Vermont Yankee's spent fuel into sealed casks, a project that's scheduled for completion in late 2018. At that point, "a number of the currently active systems will be deactivated and abandoned," Lynch said.

But Lynch also reiterated Entergy's core argument about further environmental sampling: He said most of that work is best done during decommissioning, when "a detailed plan, the proper equipment and additional resources will be available."

Lynch issued a reminder that Entergy intends to place Vermont Yankee into an extended dormancy program called SAFSTOR if the NorthStar sale falls through.

Additional environmental sampling can take place when buildings and underground systems are removed, but "the timeline for this removal, if the proposed (NorthStar) transaction is not approved or does not close, is decades into the future," Lynch testified.

NorthStar also is disclosing more information about its environmental testing.

The company already is on site via a "pre-closing" contract with Entergy. NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State said in recent filings that his company is performing "selective sampling" at the site to aid in its Vermont Yankee decommissioning planning.

That includes "sampling of certain structures for hazardous constituents, including paint coatings and window caulkings, for PCBs, lead paint, asbestos and other potential contaminants," State wrote in documents filed earlier this month with the Public Utility Commission.

But such work has been limited due to uncertainty about whether NorthStar will be able to buy the plant and implement an accelerated decommissioning plan. If the sale is called off, State said, site remediation may not happen at Vermont Yankee until 2060.

"The (NorthStar) project team decided not to expend a lot of pre-closing efforts on sampling that may not be useful in 2060," State said.

Mike Faher reports for the Brattleboro Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.


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