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Entergy agrees to continue pumping tritiated water

Shumlin: ‘Grateful’ for company’s willingness to meet with him

Additional reporting was provided by Anne Galloway, editor of VTDigger.org.

VERNON—Entergy Corp. has agreed to resume pumping tritiated groundwater from the soils within the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant compound by the end of December. The Louisiana-based corporation has also said it will step up its environmental monitoring efforts.

Gov.-elect Peter Shumlin toured Vermont Yankee on Friday and met with Entergy officials to discuss a formal request he issued to the company and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In his letter last week to Michael Colomb, Vermont Yankee site vice-president, and Gregory Jazcko, head of the NRC, Shumlin asked Entergy to resume pumping radioactive water from the ground, continue monitoring an abandoned drinking water well in the Construction Office Building, which has tested positive for tritium, and continue its testing of Connecticut River fish and plant life for radioactivity.

Entergy spokesman Larry Smith said Entergy could answer “yes” to all three requests. “I think we’re in full agreement,” he said.

Smith said extraction would resume by the end of December once pumps have been installed.

He contended Entergy’s decision to continue extracting tritiated water from the site was based on information the company recently obtained – not on the letter or the meeting with the future governor. Smith did not elaborate, except to say, “[The meeting] was very good from our perspective.”

On Friday night, Shumlin said the visit was “worthwhile.”

“As governor I have to work with everybody — that’s my job,” Shumlin said.

As president pro tem of the Senate, he led the charge to block the Public Service Board from issuing a Certificate of Public Good for the plant, which is scheduled to be retired in March 2012. Even if the plant receives a renewal of its federal license from the NRC, Vermont Yankee cannot operate in the state without the CPG.

Throughout Shumlin’s campaign for governor, he aggressively used the Yankee issue against his opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie.

Shumlin said he did not discuss Entergy’s relicensing bid with Vermont Yankee officials on Friday. After the meeting, he struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that he was grateful for the officials’ willingness to meet with him.

“As governor, I want to have as productive a relationship with Entergy, who is the owner of our only nuke plant, as possible,” Shumlin said. “I appreciate their willingness to sit down with me. Obviously, I’ve been one of their lead critics. It would be easy for them to slam the door on me.”

Shumlin said the tritium plume is now close to the former Construction Office Building drinking water well. The soils in this area of the plant compound are compressed, he said, as a result of the fill that was used to construct the facility in the early 1970s. The compacted soil will slow down the extraction, he said.

“Every gallon we pump out now is a gallon we don’t have to deal with later,” Shumlin said. “The most important part of the visit was the conversations about minimizing as much as possible the damage from the leaks.”

Tritium leaks at Vermont Yankee were first reported last January. A leaking underground pipe and clogged drain sent water containing radioactive isotopes, including tritium — the form of radioactive hydrogen that can contaminate water — into the ground around the plant.

According to Smith, the plume of contaminated water has continued to follow the site’s hydrology, west to east, toward the Connecticut River.

Last spring, Vermont Yankee officials identified the source of the leaks, excavated the area around the leaks, began extracting tritiated water from the site, and dug monitoring wells on the compound to measure tritium levels. Over the course of the spring and summer, testing results showed declining levels of the radioactive isotope.

The Vermont Department of Health recommended the extraction, and Entergy originally agreed to pump 300,000 gallons of tritiated water from the soil and to re-evaluate whether continued extraction was necessary once the target amount had been removed.

Smith said Entergy removed 309,000 gallons of groundwater. Extraction was halted on Nov. 18. Smith said that in the interim, Entergy had been waiting to hear about the site’s hydrology and to see if “what we’ve been doing was having an effect.”

The amount of tritium found in routine testing in the wells closer to the original leak site is “trending down,” according to Smith. The wells closer to the river, east of the leak site, are showing higher numbers, as expected.

“It’s headed toward the river, and we’ve never denied it,” said Smith. “But we can’t measure tritium above background levels in the river.”

Shumlin said he wanted to keep Vermonters safe and that the end goal of dealing with the contaminated ground water was to “mitigate all radioisotopes,” such as the Strontium-90 also found in the soil surrounding the leak site.

“The challenge is to mitigate as much as we can,” Shumlin said. “It’s prudent to pump out as much tritium as we can. I’m grateful to Entergy they’ve agreed to continue pumping.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #81 (Wednesday, December 29, 2010).

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