NRC knew about underground pipes at VY
BRATTLEBORO -- Even though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission knew about the extent of underground and buried pipes at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, it didn't attempt to correct statements made by Yankee representatives during hearings before Vermont state agencies in 2009.
Entergy, which owns and operates Yankee, had told the NRC that the plant has 40 below-grade pipes that carry radionuclides, said Jim Noggle, NRC Region 1's senior health physicist, during a tritium workshop at Brattleboro Union High School on April 19.
"We always knew about them," he said. "They were not unknown at all to us."
After a leak of tritiated water was discovered at Yankee in January, state agencies learned statements made by Yankee representatives at hearings before the Vermont Public Service Board, to Nuclear Safety Associates, which conducted a comprehensive reliability assessment of the plant, and the Public Oversight Panel, which reviewed the CRA, weren't consistent with the actual extent of underground pipes at the plant.
The PSB opened an investigation into whether the Yankee representatives knowingly gave inaccurate information to the state and its agents. Entergy also commissioned an independent investigation into the statements made, which absolved its employees of any wrongdoing.
However, five employees were suspended and six others reprimanded as a result of the statements made.
Entergy is expected to release the investigation report soon.
An NRC spokesman said the agency didn't correct the information because "We were not involved in Entergy's testimony to the state."
However, said Neil Sheehan, that information was readily available to the state.
"Others, including a number of reporters, did ask us around that time if we believed underground and/or buried piping existed at the site," he said. "We said underground and buried piping can be found at each and every nuclear power plant in the United States."
Sarah Hoffman, the director of public advocacy for the Vermont Department of Public Service, said while it would have been nice if the NRC had corrected the statements made by Yankee representatives, it wasn't their responsibility.
"The NRC does not have to respond to information requests from the state," she said. "They are very careful to separate themselves from any state process."
The responsibility to supply accurate and complete information belongs to the licensee, said Hoffman.
"We were told there were no underground pipes carrying radionuclides," she said. "Both the department and the Public Oversight Panel questioned those statements."
Again they were told there were no such pipes at Yankee.
"At that point we believed that," said Hoffman. "Obviously, we expect that the people we regulate to give us the correct information. If we had to confirm everything with the NRC after our folks have gathered information, we would never be able to end any process."
The Public Oversight Panel was tasked by the Vermont Legislature in reviewing and reporting on a comprehensive reliability assessment conducted by Nuclear Safety Associates.
The assessment was intended to inform the Legislature's decision on whether the power plant should be allowed to continue operation past its current license expiration date in 2012.
Recently, the Senate voted 26-4 in opposition to continued operation.
Arnie Gundersen, a member of the Public Oversight Panel, said he and others had to rely on the assurances of Entergy.
"You just don't have enough people to review everything," he said.
While the NRC knew all along about the extent of the below-grade pipes, he said, "They chose not to tell us because it was not in their jurisdiction."
The NRC received both the NSA and POP reports, said Gundersen, which was an opportunity for the agency to correct the record.
"They chose not to comment on them," he said. "The NRC builds a wall around what it does and they don't communicate over that wall. It's a box they have chosen to work in."
The executive director of the Windham Regional Council said that while he and others deserve some of the blame, he agreed Entergy wasn't as clear as it should have been.
"We rely an awful lot on the information presented," said Jim Matteau.
Nonetheless, he said, the state's agencies and other interested parties only have themselves to blame.
"Everyone who was a party, including the WRC, had an opportunity to follow up and ask more questions," said Matteau. "It doesn't look like any of us did enough. In hindsight, we all deserve a slap on the forehead."
Gundersen said he won't speculate on the reasons why Yankee representatives gave the incorrect information, but one thing is certain. Entergy, which bought the plant in 2002, doesn't know the design basis of the plant, which went online in 1972.
Design basis is a term used in engineering and typically consists of descriptions of equipment and engineering drawings, which identify how the design provides the performance and operational requirements of the project and its systems, according to definitions.uslegal.com.
A design basis "consists of a set of statements that could form the basis of inspection and test acceptance criteria."
"We should require the licensee to go back and review the plant's design basis," said Gundersen.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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