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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

VY, state spar over testing of groundwater

Entergy seeks streamlined monitoring, while Vt. officials want to continue monitoring at the company’s expense

BRATTLEBORO—When groundwater is collected at Vermont Yankee, there are two sets of eyes — Entergy’s and the state’s — scrutinizing the samples for pollutants.

The question, though, is whether that arrangement should continue now that the plant no longer produces power. And some say it’s a high-stakes debate, given the past discovery of contaminants like tritium and strontium-90 at the Vernon site.

Plant owner Entergy is calling for a streamlined monitoring system to replace the “redundant, resource-intensive and inconsistent programs” now in effect. But Vermont officials are arguing that their separate, independent environmental monitoring is necessary — and that Entergy should keep footing the bill for that program.

“The nuclear industry itself describes this consistently — that redundant and independent efforts assure better-quality results,” said Bill Irwin, the state Department of Health’s radiological and toxicological sciences chief. “We’ve always thought that having two environmental-surveillance programs was one way to very effectively make sure that the environment and public health are protected.”

Groundwater monitoring is just the latest topic in a regulatory argument that’s been ongoing since Vermont Yankee ceased producing power in December 2014. Entergy administrators and Vermont officials have clashed on topics such as the use of Yankee’s decommissioning trust fund and the reduction of emergency operations both inside and outside the plant.

On the latter topic, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved a drastic downsizing of emergency planning that takes effect in April. Irwin said the far-reaching consequences of that decision extend also to his department’s environmental monitoring, since Entergy’s funding obligations for such programs are scheduled to end.

In the current fiscal year, the state’s budget for environmental monitoring and emergency response planning related to Vermont Yankee is $535,000, Irwin said.

The monitoring program accounts for about half of that amount, and Irwin is hopeful that negotiations between Entergy and the state will lead to some level of ongoing, voluntary funding from the company.

“We are operating on the basis that we’ll be able to continue to do this (environmental monitoring) to some degree,” Irwin said. “We just don’t know exactly how we’ll fund it.”

Irwin spoke after a Jan. 28 meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (VNDCAP) in Brattleboro. The session included lengthy discussion of the importance of groundwater monitoring, but there is sharp division among some panel members as to how that monitoring should be conducted at Vermont Yankee.

Late last year, Entergy submitted a draft advisory opinion to the panel calling for “joint and collaborative” groundwater monitoring at Vermont Yankee. Entergy wants to end duplicative water tests, claiming that such testing comes at a “substantial cost” and provides “no benefit to public health and safety.”

Entergy administrators say they maintain and test 31 groundwater-monitoring wells at Vermont Yankee. The state’s separate monitoring program “analyzes the same samples collected and analyzed by (Entergy) and has shown consistent and predictable results,” the company’s opinion says.

State officials point out that it was their testing that found low levels of strontium-90, a cancer-causing byproduct of nuclear fission, in Vermont Yankee groundwater samples from 2014. But Entergy continues to take issue with that finding, arguing that the state was looking for artificially low levels of strontium — levels that were well below federal limits for safe drinking water.

Using contaminant-detection levels that are “below industry accepted standards does not increase public health and safety,” Entergy administrators wrote in their groundwater opinion.

At the Jan. 28 meeting, Irwin countered by declaring that “the Health Department is not bound by NRC regulations as to what levels of detection are possible.” And he said he believes that more stringent monitoring is necessary even as the plant is heading into decommissioning.

Irwin detailed the types of pollution already known at Vermont Yankee. They include corrosion products such as cobalt, manganese, zinc, and iron, along with fission products such as cesium, strontium, and tritium.

“These are the kinds of radioactive materials that have been found in the groundwater and in the soil at the station, so these are the kinds of radioactive materials we keep our eye on,” Irwin said.

Some pollution is the result of long-term accumulation from routine operations. But there have been incidents that have contributed to contamination at the site, including a 1983 leak of 83,000 gallons of reactor makeup water; a 1991 leak from a chemistry lab drain line; the 1993 discovery of contaminated river sediments; and the 2010 disclosure of tritium leaks.

A list of such incidents is available in Entergy’s Vermont Yankee Site Assessment Study, released in October 2014 and available at http://vydecommissioning.com.

Irwin reiterated that no contaminants have been found in public drinking water off the Yankee site, and he said there has been no evidence of an “actual dose to members of the public.”

“That’s why we have the (monitoring) program — to make sure that we don’t have those kinds of levels, and that we take steps with the owner of the facility to try to remediate (pollution),” Irwin said.

He said he believes such environmental monitoring is important as the Vermont Yankee site enters SAFSTOR, a period of extended dormancy that precedes actual decommissioning work.

“During SAFSTOR, you never know what’s going to happen — it could be 50 years of SAFSTOR,” Irwin said. He added that some contamination might not be found until the site is fully “characterized” via extensive soil sampling, or even until dismantlement of the plant begins.

Irwin said the unexpected discovery of tritium and strontium-90 at other decommissioning nuclear plants such as Yankee Rowe, Connecticut Yankee, and Maine Yankee drove up cleanup costs at those sites. By continuing to closely monitor Vermont Yankee, Irwin says additional pollution might be found “before it becomes more costly.”

When decommissioning finally proceeds at the plant, Irwin said there will be potential for additional sources of pollution and for off-site impacts from such pollution. The decommissioning project, he said, “is likely to be the largest industrial activity in Vermont history.”

“We want to be able to monitor the air, the soil, the water for these kinds of incidents that might occur,” Irwin said. “And that’s all that we do right now.”

Irwin has issued his own draft advisory opinion on the future of groundwater monitoring at Vermont Yankee. He wrote that the state’s environmental surveillance should “continue with the financial support of the owner of the NRC licenses for the facility and its spent fuel installation until those licenses are terminated.”

Copies of both groundwater opinions are available at VNDCAP’s new website, publicservice.vermont.gov/electric/vsnap. The panel is supposed to discuss both proposals at its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 25 at Brattleboro Union High School.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #342 (Wednesday, February 3, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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