VY tower collapse leads to calls for further safety review
"There are serious issues of public safety surrounding the Vermont Yankee dispute," wrote Gary Sullivan, president of Utility Workers Union of America Local 369, which represents workers at Entergy's Pilgrim power plant in Plymouth, Mass., in a press release dated Aug. 23. "We cannot allow one bad corporate apple and corporate greed to create a global risk."
The unions had called a press conference for the afternoon of Aug. 25, during contract negotiations, and then canceled it after it appeared representatives from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Entergy, which owns Vermont Yankee, had reached a tentative agreement.
Those who were scheduled to attend the canceled meeting included representatives from Local 369, the IBEW -- representing 157 workers at Vermont Yankee -- and the AFL-CIO, which represents 1,800 workers at 11 nuclear power plants.
"It was stated (that) workers were concerned that degrading conditions at Vermont Yankee had led to a decrease in margins of public safety," wrote Ray Shadis, technical adviser to the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, in an e-mail to the media.
"What is very clear from the union's press release is that there are safety concerns at Vermont Yankee that have not made it out to the public," said James Moore, clean energy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. "We would hope that the employees have public safety first and foremost in their minds, but we have serious concerns that Entergy Corporation is cutting corners to increase their profits, potentially at the risk of millions of people who live in the area surrounding Vermont Yankee."
Last week's collapse of a cooling tower at the plant adds impetus to legislation sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which would force an independent safety assessment on a nuclear power plant if so demanded by a state's legislature or its public service board.
"The collapse of a structure at the plant is an indication we need to take a thorough look at Vermont Yankee," said Sanders. "In my mind, we have got to go the absolute extra mile to make sure older nuclear power plants -- and all others -- are as safe as they can possibly be."
His legislation, said Sanders, "has not been received warmly by the NRC."
NEC is asking the NRC to "act immediately to restore reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public heath and safety that is now degraded by the failure of the licensee and its employees to report adverse conditions leading to a reduction in plant safety margins."
NEC would like either a "diagnostic evaluation team examination" or an independent safety assessment as well as "a safety culture assessment to determine why worker safety concerns were not previously reported."
To insure public safety, NEC is also asking the NRC to derate Vermont Yankee to 50 percent of its licensed thermal output "until a thorough and detailed structural and performance analysis of the cooling towers, including the alternate cooling system, has been completed by the licensee."
NEC also wants the NRC to look at safety conditions at other Entergy nuclear power plants.
"I do not see any specifics in (the press release) regarding the union's safety concerns," said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan. "We would want to learn more about what they consist of."
Nuclear power plant operators are required by law to report safety issues, which they can do in a variety of ways: Bring them to the attention of plant management or NRC inspectors, file a condition report in-house, use other internal plant processes to raise concerns or submit an allegation to the NRC,
"It's vital that plant employees feel comfortable raising safety concerns to us so that there are many, many more eyes keeping watch on conditions at that and other reactor facilities," said Sheehan.
Reprisal might be one reason why employees at Yankee haven't spoken up about safety conditions, said Diana Sidebotham, president of NEC.
"In speaking the truth, they may be doing so at their own peril."
Questioned about plant conditions Monday, Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith said he did not know what the union's concerns were and could not comment. "Ask the union," Smith said.
George Clain, business manager with the IBEW, said he did not want to discuss the details of the union's safety concerns until after he had spoken with state and federal authorities, which he said he would do Monday night.
The NRC would not comment on whether any meetings between the IBEW and members of its staff were scheduled.
"We are always available to meet with licensee personnel, or members of the public, to discuss potential safety concerns," said Sheehan. "However, we go to great lengths to protect the identity of those who might raise safety concerns with us. Therefore, we do not by policy confirm or deny such conversations."
In the last five years, the NRC has received 20 "reactor allegations" related to safety concerns at Vermont Yankee, but only one of them -- in 2005 -- was substantiated, said Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC.
"We usually don't comment on the contents of an allegation," said Sheehan. "Even the ones we substantiate. We go to great lengths to protect the anonymity of plant employees."
The NRC's allegations program is meant to "provide a mechanism for individuals to identify safety and regulatory issues directly to the agency."
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
The AP contributed to this story.
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