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NEC takes issue with Entergy oversight program

BRATTLEBORO—Does a quality Assurance/quality control (QA/QC) program work if employees report to their supervisors?

Raymond Shadis, technical advisor to the New England Coalition, says “no.”

Entergy, owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, presented a QA/QC oversight program to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month.

Shadis described the program as “integral to the dumbing down of regulations,” so the licensee can avoid the regulations.

QA/QC departments inspect systems and parts within a company. At a nuclear plant, such a department inspects equipment, parts, and work to ensure they are nuclear-rated. It also analyzes the root cause of problems or events.

In Shadis’s view, Entergy has created a vertical structure that sends QA/QC reports up the corporate ladder.

If Entergy executives think a report merits concern, then they’ll marshall a QA/QC response, said Shadis.

This new structure “carries more threats” for employees than the company’s previous QA/QC program, he said.

QA/QC costs companies time and money, said Shadis, and if an employee costs the company either, the result might be a career-ender.

Shadis said QA/QC programs should remain independent of the corporate structure.

NEC has previously taken issue with QA/QC programs at Vermont Yankee. Its previous owner, said Shadis, did not have a QA/QC program even during the plant’s construction in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At the time, the NRC required that plants under construction have an independent QA/QC department, said Shadis.

According to Shadis, by the late 1970s, plant executives delegated QA/QC to the engineering department. The problem with this structure, he said, is that it required employees to report to their department managers.

Entergy kept this QA/QC model after it acquired the plant in 2002, said Shadis.

In 2004, he said, the corporation adopted this model, dubbed the “Vermont Yankee model,” fleet-wide.

In an April 26, 2004 letter from an “anonymous whistle-blower” to Shadis, the letter-writer commented on the “worthless” in-house inspection program at Vermont Yankee.

The letter-writer referenced an “Inter-Office Correspondence” that discussed the “the final phase of eliminating the QC [department] at Entergy nuclear plants located in the Northeast.”

The plan, said the writer, “has been called the 'Vermont Model' as Vermont has been operating for years without an in-house QC department.”

Shadis said incidents like the 2007 cooling tower collapse could have possibly been avoided with a proper QA/QC program.

According to NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan, Entergy briefed the NRC on revisions to its QA/QC program.

“[The NRC] has engaged Entergy for quite some time,” said Sheehan, adding that the commission felt Entergy’s QA/QC program “had issues” fleet-wide.

The NRC felt concerned that Entergy’s programs lacked adequate checks and balances.

The company’s QA/QC program augments inspections by the NRC resident inspectors and serves as “another layer of oversight at Entergy,” said Sheehan.

The federal agency's resident inspectors serve as “generalists,” acting as the NRC’s “eyes and ears” at the plant, said Sheehan. Their work, however, is supplemented by “specialist inspectors.”

A QA/QC program provides for inspections, analysis, and work plans for a plant system like the reactor safety system.

Sheehan said the NRC independently verifies “many aspects” of operations at nuclear plants, “but it’s not practical for the NRC to review every element at a plant. It’s not the role of the federal government to implement a QA/QC program.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #109 (Wednesday, July 13, 2011).

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