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NRC completes groundwater inspections at VY

VERNON—The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has completed its inspections related to the tritium leak at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and has given the plant the thumbs up.

According to a letter sent from the NRC to Vermont Yankee Site Vice President Michael Colomb dated Sept. 20, the agency’s goal behind the inspections was to assess VY’s ongoing monitoring and remediation of the tritium plume detected in early 2010 as it flowed with the groundwater toward the Connecticut River.

The latest NRC inspection report, conducted between May 9 and Aug. 30, “did not identify any findings,” NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan wrote in an email.

On April 5, 2010, the NRC opened a “Deviation Memorandum” for VY in response to the tritium leaking from underground pipes discovered at the plant earlier that year.

The memorandum allowed the agency to “devote additional resources to an issue at a plant that are above and beyond our normal inspections,” wrote Sheehan.

Based on the latest inspection, the NRC decided that VY, owned by Entergy Corp., had met all the memorandum’s criteria.

The agency has closed the deviation memorandum for the plant.

“We’re pleased,” said VY spokesperson Larry Smith about the NRC’s decision.

According to Sheehan, to satisfy the memorandum, the 39-year-old, 605-megawatt plant met three criteria:

• Entergy established and implemented effluent control and environmental procedures. The NRC feels these steps will provide “reasonable assurance” that the existing groundwater situation will be monitored and assessed.

• The new procedures will alert plant engineers to new or changing groundwater conditions.

• Finally, the procedures are adequate to gauge remediation efforts connected to the current tritium plume.

The NRC also determined that VY had implemented the full range of procedures outlined in voluntary industry Groundwater Protection Initiative of the Nuclear Entergy Institute (NEI). This determination marks a change from more limited range of procedures VY had implemented in 2010.

In a May 2010 inspection report, the NRC found the plant had not “implemented all of the necessary” NEI processes designed for responding to releases of radioactive materials into the groundwater.

Following the trail

Graphs with data from Jan. 17, 2010 to July 17, 2011, included with the NRC’s report, show tritium levels in the monitoring wells dropping as the tritium plume migrated toward the river.

Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee informed the NRC on Jan. 7, 2010 that tritium had leaked into a groundwater monitoring well. After an investigation, VY engineers located the leak in a concrete underground pipe tunnel near the Advance Off-Gas Building.

According to the NRC’s latest inspection report, engineers terminated the leak in February 2010.

VY officials’ initial denial that underground pipes existed at the plant, and then subsequent about-face when confronted with the tritium leak, cost the plant numerous supporters in Vermont, like then-Gov. Jim Douglas.

In February 2010, the Vermont Senate voted to prohibit the Public Service Board from hearing the nuclear plant’s certificate of public good case (CPG).

Without this document, the plant faces closure when its operating license expires in March 2012, despite receiving federal approval to operate for another 20 years from the NRC earlier this year.

Entergy filed suit against the state in April, claiming that federal law pre-empts the state’s authority to enforce three state statutes.

The company asserts that a 1946 federal law prevents the state from attempting to regulate radiological safety — authority reserved solely for the NRC.

During court testimony earlier this month in U.S. District Court, the state’s attorneys pointed to the tritium leak, saying a loss of trust in Entergy, not radiological safety, had governed the state’s actions.

Inspectors on the May 9 to Aug. 30 agency report included a NRC health physicist, a technical advisor from the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, and a U.S. Geological Survey hydrogeologist.

According to Sheehan, the NRC has devoted 1,959 hours to groundwater issues at VY above its normal inspection hours.

“The NRC is not going away,” said Sheehan. “We will continue to review groundwater issues at VY through our normal oversight process, including via our [two] Resident Inspectors assigned to the plant.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #120 (Wednesday, September 28, 2011).

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