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Vermont Yankee security changes endorsed by feds

NRC approves secret security changes implemented since nuclear plant’s shutdown

VERNON—Federal regulators have announced that they’re satisfied with security changes implemented since Vermont Yankee’s shutdown.

But it’s not clear exactly what those changes are, and officials say that’s by design.

Radioactive material, including spent nuclear fuel, remains on site, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has expressed concern about publicly disclosing too many details of the plant’s protection scheme.

“We are letting the public know we took a close look at whether the new plan is consistent with our security requirements for a permanently shut down nuclear power plant,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.

“However, we are not providing any details of the changes, [including] number of security officers post-shutdown, weaponry needed, etc.”

Rethinking plant security

Since plant owner Entergy ceased producing power at Vermont Yankee in December 2014, at least one security change has been apparent: The plant’s main gate is no longer staffed.

But administrators have warned that the gate is still monitored, and an armed security force — authorized to use “deadly force,” according to a sign at the entrance — remains on site to defend the plant’s protected area.

While there had been initial reports of a few people wandering onto the site post-shutdown, that no longer seems to be an issue.

“We believe that the signs have done their job in terms of people recognizing not to trespass on a nuclear facility,” plant spokesman Marty Cohn said.

In another security-related matter, Entergy has said crews razed several storage buildings inside the plant’s protected area.

Joe Lynch, Vermont Yankee’s government affairs manager, said last month at a meeting in Brattleboro that the building removals were aimed at “improving the view around the site so our security officers have a better view of any potential threats.”

Beyond that measure, no details have been disclosed about how security has shifted at Vermont Yankee. But the NRC now has completed its review of the plant’s security plans, and a January letter says the agency’s staff determined that Entergy’s changes “did not result in a decrease in safeguards effectiveness” at the facility.

That decision was based on a June visit to Vermont Yankee to review current and future security plans, the NRC letter says.

An August inspection included a tabletop exercise and assessments of “equipment performance, tests and maintenance,” “protective strategy evaluation,” and “critical responder timelines.”

NRC ‘grappled’ with security disclosure policy

The NRC says Entergy made changes to the plant’s physical security plan, the security training and qualification plan, and a safeguards contingency plan. The federal letter references revisions in the plant’s security equipment and “response force numbers,” along with a few other details.

The company’s detailed security documents, however, “contain safeguards information and have been withheld from public disclosure,” NRC officials wrote.

Sheehan said withholding such information is a matter not taken lightly.

After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NRC officials “grappled with the need to let the public know about security issues at nuclear power plants within their communities versus the need to deprive potential adversaries of any security-related information that could aid them in an attack,” Sheehan said.

“The commission ultimately decided to provide information at a high level without disclosing specifics,” he added. “This approach applies to the post-shutdown security changes we have approved for Vermont Yankee.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #344 (Wednesday, February 17, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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