Panel: VY safe but more resources needed

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Wednesday, March 18
BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont Yankee can operate reliably past 2012, concluded a panel appointed to review an audit of the nuclear power plant in Vernon.

But its reliability, wrote the panel in a report issued Tuesday, can only be guaranteed if Entergy invests the resources needed to address recommendations made by the panel and the independent consultant that conducted the audit.

Entergy must be committed to a high standard of reliable performance, it wrote, and a credible process trusted by the public must be put in place to verify the company is following through on its commitments. Nonetheless, wrote the panel, "VY has had a very good historical performance."

In its 37 years of operation, Vermont Yankee has not had an outage lasting one year or longer, though nearly half of the boiling water reactors in the United States have.

From 2004 to 2006, Vermont Yankee's operation was in the top half of the industry.

In 2007 and 2008, it dropped slightly in the ranking because of problems with cooling towers and feedwater chemistry, which the panel called "significant operational shortcomings."

Of Entergy's 11 reactors, Vermont Yankee was fourth with a 93 percent capacity factor, from 2005 to 2007.

Of all the nation's 16 boiling water reactors, Vermont Yankee was third in that same time period.

"In general, the NSA report found that ENVY management and organization are appropriate," stated the panel.

However, it wrote, management action and additional resources are needed to address areas identified in the report.

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Entergy has committed to 39 long-range programs for managing aging systems, wrote the panel, "But these programs are commitments that have not yet been developed."

In the reliability assessment conducted by Nuclear Safety Associates, Yankee's management was taken to task for several "weaknesses."

Those included the majority of the plant's procedure documents and the pace at which it has adopted an industry reliability index, which both do not meet industry standards.

In its assessment, NSA stated Yankee management needs to do a better job in encouraging employees to stick to procedure, helping them cut down on accidents and injuries and asking them to keep the plant a little cleaner.

The report also warned against too great a reliance on individual experience and relationships and against behavior that is "on occasion not driven by programs, processes and procedure adherence."

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The panel expressed concern over a 2004 transformer fire. Operating experience "was neither recognized nor heeded," the panel wrote. "This type of flexible connection had failed previously at other plants in the same manner."

Both the fire and the 2007 cooling tower collapse could have been avoided, stated the panel, because they were due to inadequate inspections and inadequate use of operating experience.

"A less-than-desirable management commitment to reliability may have played a role " it wrote. "The panel recognizes VY's good historical performance but questions whether the transformer fire and the repetitive cooling tower failures are indicative of declining performance that will result in unacceptable reliability."

However, admitted the panel, neither the cooling tower collapse nor the fire are "precursors of unreliable operation in the future."

"No report written in 2009 can provide firm assurances as to events between now and 2032," stated the panel. "As nuclear plants age beyond the 40-year mark, the unexpected can occur, and VY is not immune."

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Problems with the cooling towers, the panel wrote, challenge the plant's future reliability as do leaks in the plant's condensers, the chemistry index of reactor water, a leaky steam valve that has resisted attempts at repair, and high staff turnover.

Staffing is of particular concern because the work force "is changing and the challenges of a maturing physical plant need to be worked in a more integrated and assured manner to maintain reliability," stated the panel.

Vermont Yankee currently has about 40 vacant positions, about 8 percent of its work force, according to the report.

That's not all that can stand in the way of reliability when it comes to human resources, it stated.

"The nature of the current discourse has the potential to impede reliability," particularly because highly skilled workers might not want to work in a region with a divided and vocal population.

The best way to insure the plant remains reliable, wrote the panel, is to make sure it's corrective action programs are effective.

"Mere awareness of past lessons learned falls short of adequate protection against future lessons," wrote the panel.

A long-term outage could occur due to "a degraded culture" that lets small problems get bigger or an equipment or system failure, it stated.

Effective aging management requires improved inspection procedures, additional resources and more staff hours, it wrote.

Bob Audette can be reached at, or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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