State probes allegations of prior VY leaks

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BRATTLEBORO -- If an anonymous phone call received by a member of the Vermont Yankee Vertical Audit Public Oversight Panel is determined to be true, Entergy, which owns and operates the nuclear power plant in Vernon, could find itself in even more hot water than it is in now with the state.

Attorney General William Sorrell and the Vermont Public Service Board are investigating whether Entergy representatives lied under oath or knowingly gave false information during PSB hearings last year about the extent of underground and buried piping at the power plant.

In a phone call to Arnie Gundersen on Feb. 14, a person claiming to be a Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant employee said the facility's advanced off-gas system, which is currently under investigation as the possible source of tritiated water that has contaminated ground water under the plant, has had underground pipe leaks in the past.

"Specifically, the employee said that approximately two years ago, there was an unisolateable radioactive steam leak into the underground AOG drain pit," wrote Gundersen, in an e-mail to the Vermont Department of Public Service on Feb. 16.

The person told Gundersen that plant technicians gained access to the drain pit through an outside access hatch and that a tent and high efficient particulate air filter was installed to prevent the spread of airborne radioactive contamination from the drain pit into the environment.

"The HEPA filter exhausted air into the yard area that is presently being excavated," wrote Gundersen in his e-mail to the DPS. "Employee said that access time was limited because of the radiation and that employees wore full protective clothing to assess and repair the leak."

The person also told Gundersen that because the leak could not be isolated, a repair would have required shutdown of the plant. Instead, said the person, "Furmanite" leak sealant was applied to plug the hole until a complete repair could be done during the next outage.

According to Furmanite's Web site, it provides two compounds to suit a wide variety of applications to seal holes in pipes and valves, cracked welds and other components in nuclear power plants and other industries.

The compounds can be used to seal on-line leaks by forming a molded gasket around a vessel at temperatures ranging from sub-zero to 1,112° Farenheit and at pressures up to 5,076 psi, according to the Web site.

The DPS, in a letter to the Vermont Department of Public Service on Thursday, said it had "no reason to accept or challenge the accuracy of the allegations."

Nonetheless, stated the DPS, it takes these allegations very seriously and is implementing a review of past Vermont Yankee corrective actions in a specific attempt to determine whether the allegations are accurate or not, and if such a leak did in fact occur, whether it was part of an underground piping system.

Larry Smith, Yankee's director of communications, said it had received the letter but had no comment on its content at this time.

"Entergy takes this matter very seriously," he said. "We will investigate the letter."

In addition, the DPS plans to review Yankee's reporting obligations to see if such an event was reportable to the state, and if so, whether appropriate notification was made.

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"The allegation raises a number of questions," stated Ray Shadis, consulting technical advisor to the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, which opposes the relicensing of Yankee, in an e-mail to the Reformer. "Any leak and work, such as that described in the allegation, should have been reported to the NRC Resident Inspectors and should have caught the attention of the State Nuclear Engineer."

The allegation also brings into question the viability of Yankee's and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's anonymous employee reporting hotlines, stated Shadis.

"Was either used?" he asked. "If not, why not? If this purported leak and work package went un-noticed by Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Resident Inspectors and the State Nuclear Engineer, then their oversight is virtually worthless."

In any case, such a leak should have been reported to the NRC, wrote Shadis, who said if it was reported, why has the NRC remained silent about it during the current investigation into the leak of tritiated water into groundwater?

NRC Spokesman Neil Sheehan said it had just received the communication between Gundersen and the DPS and had no comment on it at this time.

Shadis and Greenpeace are calling on the Vermont Attorney General's Office and the NRC Office of the Inspector General to investigate the allegation.

"If the allegation recently made by an anonymous Vermont Yankee employee proves true, then Entergy may have failed to report or even covered up previous releases of radioactive material into Vermont's environment," stated Jim Riccio, Greenpeace's nuclear policy analyst, in an e-mail to the Reformer.

"If this allegation proves true," wrote Riccio, "it will add to the already abundant evidence that Entergy Louisiana cannot be counted on to deal with Vermonters in a good faith manner."

Not only should Yankee be closed in 2012, stated Riccio, between now and then the DPS and the NRC Vermont Yankee must not only be "must step up their oversight of this trouble facility."

Riccio stated that Greenpeace will be calling on the DPS and Sorrell to investigate this allegation "in an expedited manner" and to put Entergy officials under oath and compel their testimony in this matter.

Sorrell told the Reformer that he was aware of the e-mail from Gundersen but he had yet to receive a request from any party to investigate the allegation.

Though Sorrell on the allegation received by Gundersen, he did say he would welcome "all potentially relevant and helpful information" related to testimony Entergy representatives have presented to the state.

Sorrell said anonymous tips are received as a matter of course by law enforcement agencies around the country.

"Those that can be verified can be very helpful," he said.


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