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NRC responds to AP investigation, defends decision to renew VY license

BRATTLEBORO—At last Wednesday’s public hearing at Brattleboro Union High School, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) representatives took heat from audience members for their decision to extend the operating license of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon for an additional 20 years.

John Ward, aSelectboard member in Gill, Mass, summed up feelings for frustrated audience members when he said that the NRC was more an industry “lapdog than watchdog.”

“It’s a cliché,” said NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan in response to Ward’s description.

Audience anger was also focused on Bo Pham, who is the NRC’s branch chief in charge of licence renewal. The audience booed Pham as he attempted to explain his branch’s process for renewing Vermont Yankee’s licence.

After the meeting, Pham said, “nothing was missed” during the plant’s relicensing process, and he wanted to assure the public that resident inspections did not stop during any part of the relicensing process.

Pham and his colleagues prepared the Vermont Yankee’s evaluation and forwarded it to the commissioners at the NRC’s executive level.

The evaluation included a safety and environmental review. The branch convened for many hours, and conducted multiple briefings.

Last Wednesday’s hearing came on the heels of a year-long investigation by The Associated Press into the NRC’s regulation of aging nuclear power stations. That investigation formed the basis of a multi-part series by the AP that found that the NRC routinely weakened its regulations so aging plants could pass inspection.

Sheehan said if people looked into the NRC’s oversight, they would see claims like Ward or the AP’s as “unsubstantiated,” adding that the NRC has inspectors at all 104 U.S. plants doing “the heavy lifting” every day.

In a formal statement, the commission said, “Although we disagree with many of their observations and conclusions, we welcome the additional attention their [AP] article brings to the critical importance of nuclear safety and security. We are always committed to doing better and doing it right.”

In the press release, the NRC said the AP article “fails to recognize” that the NRC’s inspections have detected issues at plants and corrected them.

The commission highlighted how inspections at the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska revealed gaps in the stations’ flood response plan, something that became important as record-breaking flooding on the Missouri River threatened to swamp the plant.

As a result of the inspections, and the corrective actions taken, the NRC said that Fort Calhoun “is very well positioned to ride out the current extreme Missouri River flooding.”

The commission also stated that the many of the nuclear safety standards are based on standards “created and maintained by national professional organizations” like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

The NRC stressed it endorses standard changes only when they “maintain acceptable levels of public safety; this can include adding or strengthening requirements.”

According to the NRC, the AP article did not “properly describe the sequence of events” following the corrosion “incident” of the reactor head at the Davis-Besse power plant in Ohio. The NRC fined licensee FirstEnergy $5.5 million for “lying to the NRC,” and not following requirements. The commission also shut the plant down for years while FirstEnergy made repairs.

When asked if the Vermont Yankee plant had benefited from the alleged weakening of NRC regulations, Entergy spokesperson Michael Burns replied in an e-mail.

“Entergy does not compromise when it comes to safety at Vermont Yankee or any of its plants. We are committed to maintaining the highest level of safety throughout our nuclear fleet and all of our operations,” he wrote.

He said that Entergy will sometimes suggest new operating practices or new technologies to the NRC, “but an enhanced or at least equivalent level of safety or performance must be demonstrated before the NRC will grant these alternatives,” he said.

Burns highlighted Entergy’s industry reputation for having well-run plants. Last year, its non-utility nuclear plants boasted a “capability factor of 91 percent.”

“In the last five years, Vermont Yankee has had two breaker-to-breaker runs and only one trip over about a four-and-one-half-year period,” he said.

According to Burns, Vermont Yankee’s capacity factor over the last five years is 94 percent. Before Entergy acquired it in 2002, the then-30-year old plant averaged below 78 percent.

“It would not be possible to achieve that outstanding level of performance on a consistent basis if the facility was not being well managed and well maintained,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #108 (Wednesday, July 6, 2011).

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