O'Brien: Entergy doesn't know how to play it straight

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BRATTLEBORO -- Entergy has overplayed its hand in Vermont, said David O'Brien, commissioner of the state's Department of Public Service.

"It's so obvious from reading the report that Entergy doesn't know how to play it straight," he said.

The law firm of Morgan Lewis & Bockius was hired by Entergy to conduct an independent investigation of statements made by Yankee employees to state officials about the extent of underground piping systems at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which is owned by Entergy, in Vernon.

Even Morgan Lewis & Bockius can't get everything straight, said O'Brien.

"There are multiple cases where they contradict themselves," he said, confusing underground with buried pipes in several instances.

Peter Bradford, a member of the Public Oversight Panel tasked with reviewing a reliability assessment of the plant and a former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the only comment he had for the record was that the report was not credible because it came from a law firm with deep ties to the nuclear industry.

Morgan Lewis & Bockius represents the owners of more than 60 percent of existing U.S. nuclear power plants and has handled 60 percent of the applications for new nuclear power plants, according to its Web site.

It is also involved in Entergy's bid to relicense its Indian Point nuclear power station on the Hudson River in New York state and has represented Entergy in issues related to its Pilgrim nuclear power station in Massachusetts.

Morgan Lewis & Bockius conducted a "very selective sort of internal information review," said O'Brien. "Sadly, the report is more about trying to prove out a conclusion."

But anyone reading the report can find "rampant examples of Entergy personnel making decisions based on what they believed someone was looking for," rather than asking for clarification on what information was needed by Nuclear Safety Associates, which conducted the reliability assessment, he said.

Rep. Sarah Edwards, P-Brattleboro and a member of the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel, said questions were asked of Yankee representatives in good faith.

"They should have been open to responding to further questions," she said. "Behaving as if this was a court of law beforehand is what got them into trouble."

"There were multiple occasions where Entergy personnel could have provided an accurate answer to the questions that were being asked," said O'Brien. "If you are a knowledgeable nuclear operator it would be very easy to make it clear to the other person what you mean when you are talking about underground piping."

Arnie Gundersen, a member of the Public Oversight Panel who now works as a consultant to Vermont lawmakers on Vermont Yankee issues, dismissed the report's conclusion.

He said Yankee officials knew as early as August 2009 that misrepresentations had been made about the piping issue, but that no attempt was made to correct them.

Of the report, he said: "They cherry-picked the data to support the conclusion they needed to reach. They went in knowing the answer. ... The report selectively chooses snippets and ignores anything on the record that disagrees with it."

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Even though Morgan Lewis & Bockius stated in its investigative report that it was given "complete independence ... and freedom to explore any related issues ..." O'Brien said if this was "a true investigation of what transpired" then Nuclear Safety Associates, DPS personnel and members of the Public Oversight Panel would have been interviewed along with Yankee employees.

"That's a tremendous missing link here," said O'Brien. "We're going to address it."

DPS will be filing a formal response to the report next week, he said, which will correct many of the "troubling" conclusions reached by Morgan Lewis & Bockius.

O'Brien also said Entergy representatives told members of his department that the report "would not make DPS look good. Entergy representatives suggested to us that this could be an embarrassment."

He said the statements were made in an attempt "to scare us into leaving the report alone."

"I've read this report," said O'Brien. "The embarrassment is all on Entergy. It clearly shows their inability to respond to straightforward questions with complete and transparent answers. It captures the Entergy government relations failures in a nutshell."

Entergy's actions have jeopardized Yankee's future, he said.

"At the end of the day, we had a very sound reliability audit done of the plant," said O'Brien, which concluded Yankee could operate from 2012 to 2032 as long as Entergy made a number of improvements to the plant.

DPS had recommended that the plant be allowed to keep operating, but O'Brien said the misunderstandings and miscommunications over the extent of underground piping at the plant have proved to be "a complete and unnecessary distraction."

By any outside measurement, Yankee is one of the most highly performing plants in the country, he said.

"Certainly better than others."

The power plant has operated continuously at or near peak power for more than 525 days.

Not only is Yankee highly reliable, said O'Brien, it is crucial to the state's and Windham County's economy and the carbon footprint of Vermont.

"It is something we can rely on," he said. "But Entergy as an owner has a lot of work to do to rebuild trust."

Whether Entergy can do so, he said, "remains to be seen."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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