NEC: Leak means other problems
BRATTLEBORO -- The discovery of a leak of tritiated water at Vermont Yankee is just one more sign that Entergy has mismanaged the nuclear power plant in Vernon, said Ray Shadis, technical consultant for the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution.
NEC is asking the NRC to force Yankee to cease operations until the source of the leak is found. On Wednesday, Shadis spoke before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Petition Review Board to explain in more detail the coalition's request.
"It's our view that the tritium leak is indicative of deeper issues at the plant," he said. "During the tenure of Entergy Corporation at Vermont Yankee, there have been several high-profile events."
Those included a transformer fire in 2004 and a cooling tower fan cell collapse in 2007.
The reason those incidents happened, said Shadis, is because Entergy has been deferring important maintenance tasks and has not been applying lessons learned from other power plant operators.
In the case of the transformer fire, he said, "The warning had been out there about the degradation of that particular item for 10 or 12 years prior, but Entergy ... decided to ignore it," despite the increased demand of a power uprate granted in 2003.
And Entergy could have prevented the cooling tower collapse if it had learned the lessons of similar incidents at other electricity generating facilities, said Shadis.
Entergy has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend the operating license of Yankee for another 20 years, from 2012 to 2032. As part of its license renewal application, Entergy must detail its plan for how it intends to maintain the power plant's systems, structures and components, including its pipes.
"The leak is proof positive that the aging management program that Entergy is proposing will not be adequate to protect against further leaks, primarily because the ... program depends on a 10-year interval of surveillance and such opportunistic inspections that may occur when excavating for other purposes," said Shadis.
Shadis was also concerned that there have been "failures of communication" between departments at Yankee. One reason for that is because each department has its own quality control team rather than one quality control department for the whole operation, he said.
Instituting that change "was a mistake, demonstrated by the many failures in quality control," said Shadis.
Following 900 hours of inspections performed by an NRC engineering team in 2004, he said, 14 items of concern were identified.
"More than half of those items related directly to poor quality control," said Shadis.
And now, he said, poor work practices might be the root cause for the leak of tritiated water.
The NRC issued a "demand for information" last week to review operations at the plant over the past five years. The NRC also wants to know how recent suspensions and reprimands may affect operations at the plant and whether testimony submitted by the five suspended employees in Yankee's license renewal application is correct.
The coalition is also concerned about what effect the remediation on the contamination might have on decommissioning costs, especially, said Shadis, "When the licensee is only marginally able to meet NRC requirements in terms of the accumulation decommissioning funds."
To prevent further contamination of the groundwater, which could drive up clean-up costs at the plant, the plant should be placed into cold shutdown and all systems be depressurized until the source of the leak is found, he said.
"They are adding to the (cost) every single minute that the leak continues," said Shadis.
Paul Blanch, a former nuclear engineer and whistleblower who revealed major safety lapses at Connecticut's Millstone plant in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said that Entergy's rationale for keeping Yankee running while it looks for the leak is simply an excuse "to get to the finish line."
Yankee will shut down this spring for its 18-month refueling outage and is on track to set a record run.
"The claim that we need to continue operating to identify the leak has no engineering basis whatsoever ... it is an exaggeration," said Blanch. "If the plant were shut down, the leak may or may not stop but the leak rate would be significantly reduced."
Leak testing can be done after shutdown by pressurizing different systems of the plant, he said.
Shadis did not restrict his criticism to Entergy's management of the plant. He was also critical of the NRC's reactor oversight process, which he said has not been adequately addressing negative trends at nuclear power plants.
If the process was operating properly, he said, the NRC would have seen that Entergy's maintenance has not been up to snuff, that its quality controls have repeatedly failed and communications between departments have not been all they could be.
The end result is structural, mechanical and human performance failures, said Shadis.
"Even supplemental inspections have failed to pick up on the full extent of operational and maintenance failures at Yankee," he said.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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