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Vermont Yankee safety, Japan, NRC turmoil: 3 hot topics at advisory panel meeting

VERNON—The legal world holds its breath awaiting Federal Judge J. Garvan Murtha’s ruling on the Entergy v. Vermont case. Meanwhile, the debate over safety and the Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee power station rolls on.

Representatives from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Entergy, and the public spoke before the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel (VSNAP) on Dec. 14.

NRC Senior Resident Inspector Scott Rutenkroger, previously stationed at James A. FitzPatrick nuclear power in Scriba, N.Y., outlined his daily work rounds for the panel.

Rutenkroger joined the NRC in 2004 and was assigned to the Vermont Yankee (VY) plant a few months ago. Sarah Rich, who has spent 1¼ years at VY, is the second NRC resident inspector there.

VSNAP Chair and Department of Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller asked Rutenkroger what timeline resident inspectors follow when responding to incidents at VY like a recent mis-tagging of the alpha generator.

The timeline for this screening “varies a lot,” Rutenkroger said, explaining that inspectors study the issue and review the NRC’s regulations or standards.

Rutenkroger said the NRC also wants to see what the licensee, Entergy, produces in its root cause analysis, which can have a 30-day window for completion.

Once the inspectors understand the event in total, they document the issue in their quarterly inspection report, Rutenkroger said. The next such report is due in January, he told Miller.

VSNAP member Jim Matteau asked whether Rutenkroger ever saw “something troubling” or if there were any “unpleasant days” during his routine at VY that required a work plan change.

Rutenkroger sidestepped, saying that he didn’t know “how to grade that question.” He said that he was sure there’s been “something documented.”

Lessons from Fukushima

Chris Miller, director of the division of reactor safety for the NRC’s Region 1, which has jurisdiction over Vermont Yankee, presented on the commission’s actions in response to the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan.

Several of the reactors discharged radiation after an earthquake and tsunami hit the country in March.

Chris Miller said the commission assigned a task force to evaluate the United States’ 104 reactors in light of the accident at Fukushima.

The commission has prioritized the task force’s recommendations into phases, with some items pegged for immediate action. Other responses fall into near-term and long-term categories, he said.

Chris Miller’s presentation listed the “recommendations the NRC intends to pursue without delay,” including reevaluating seismic and flooding hazards and modifying the sustained black out (SBO) rule, which outlines expectations for plants operating during power outages.

The loss of backup generation directly accounted for the disaster in Japan.

The new SBO rule would require plants to run on backup power for a minimum of eight hours to 72 hours. Current regulations call for a minimum of four hours.

Another recommendation includes installing hardened vent designs in boiling water reactors (BWRs) with Mark I and Mark II containments. The Fukushima and VY reactors share the same BWR containment design.

Recommendations with longer timelines include seeking “stakeholder [industry] input in determining action on each recommendation,” developing new regulatory requirements, expanding the radius of the emergency planning zone beyond the present 10 miles, and addressing issues with dry cask storage.

Chris Miller said the commission expects that enacting the recommendations will take five years.

Also, he said, the commission’s rule-making process usually has historically taken three years because of including the opportunity in the timetable for the public to provide a lot of feedback.

The commission will probably limit public input on the Fukushima recommendations to speed up the process, Miller said.

“Within days of a shoe bomber failing to blow up an airplane, we were all taking off our shoes,” said state Sen. Mark MacDonald, a VSNAP member, referring to the Transportation Security Administration’s procedure of X-raying shoes after a failed terrorist plot in 2001.

“What’s going on at VY now that’s different than before the Fukushima accident?” he asked.

Chris Miller said he was more aware of the overall national generic safety actions than specific actions at VY.

Rutenkroger said inspectors had identified post-Fukushima issues at VY and documented them in a May inspection report.

NRC members left the meeting early, accompanied by anti-nuclear protesters chanting “five years, five years, five years.”

Sampling the COB well?

Vermont Yankee State Liaison Engineer Bernard Buteau, who appeared before the VSNAP members at their request to answer questions about continued tritium testing in a former VY drinking well, said that the plant has no plans to sample the well, citing concerns that further sampling will create a path for the radionuclide to contaminate drinking water.

In November 2009, tritium was found leaking from the plant. Engineers isolated the source — leaking underground pipes encased in a concrete tunnel — in January 2010.

Vermont Yankee “proactively” closed the Construction Office Building, better known as the COB well, in February 2010, said Buteau.

Samplings of the COB well later that year tested positive for tritium.

Tests measured 1,040 picocuries per liter in a “fracture zone” in the well about 200 to 220 feet down, Entergy spokesperson Larry Smith told The Commons in an October 2010 interview.

“It’s [the tritium] in the aquifer,” Smith said at the time.

According to Buteau, VY ceased sampling the well in January 2011. The COB well’s shaft descends into the bedrock, he said, so sampling it could cause tritium to enter the aquifer below.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has called multiple times for Entergy to resume testing the COB well.

Buteau also said that the company had contracted with an environmental firm to develop a hydrology model of how water moves through the soils under the plant.

The model determined that water flows west to east toward the Connecticut River and upward from the bedrock toward the soil’s surface, he said.

Entergy has drilled 32 monitoring wells at VY to test for tritium moving through the groundwater. The company tests an additional seven local drinking wells in Vermont and New Hampshire, said Buteau.

These drinking water wells have never tested positive for tritium, he said.

“There’s no [tritium] ingestion path for the public as confirmed by the NRC in inspection reports,” said Buteau. “It’s not prudent, nor do we need to sample the COB.”

The company will leave the COB well alone in an attempt to safeguard the public, said Buteau.

VSNAP member Laurence Becker, who represented Agency of Natural Resources head Deb Markowitz, said the discovery of tritium didn’t “jibe” with the hydrology model. He said the company should resume testing.

Becker added that representatives at the Environmental Protection Agency’s lab in Washington D.C. believed that the vacuum method previously used to sample the COB well, which also risked injecting tritium into the aquifer, was unnecessary.

Holding accountable

Most of the 20 members of the public spoke out against the nuclear plant during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Clay Turnbull of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NEC) presented the panel with a press release and copies of a staff report from U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

Turnbull said the report, “Regulatory Meltdown: How Four Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners Conspired to Delay and Weaken Nuclear Reactor Safety in the Wake of Fukushima,” confirmed the NEC’s concerns that the commission regularly attempts to weaken the regulations governing nuclear plants and engages in “foot dragging” on Fukushima-related reforms.

Turnbull also described the report as outlining how four commissioners had failed to “enlist” NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko to their “wait-and-see and behind closed doors approach.”

Attempts by Jaczko’s colleagues to remove the chairman have been the focus of recent congressional testimony.

In the NEC press release, the 40-year-old anti-nuclear group called on VSNAP members to recommend that Shumlin, Attorney General William Sorrel, the Department of Public Service, and the state’s Congressional Delegation “strongly support NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko before President Obama and the U.S. Congress and in support of prompt, decisive, and ongoing action and regulatory reform responding to Fukushima’s lessons.”

“There is reason to believe that hydrogen, which fed the appalling explosions at Fukushima, may have been created, at least in part, from localized boiling of spent fuel coolant,” said NEC Technical Advisor Raymond Shadis.

“Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel pool contains more high-level nuclear waste fuel than all four of the Fukushima reactors combined,” said Shadis.

He added that the NRC “has calculated potential latent fatalities of a spent fuel fire at VY to be up to 25,000, out to a range of 500 miles; despite successful early evacuation of the 10-mile evacuation zone.”

Shadis said that two Fukushima hazard-reduction measures included moving spent nuclear fuel from spent fuel pools to dry cask storage and replacement of all non-submersible safety-related electrical cables from underground conduits or cable vaults.

“The NRC won’t do these jobs unless held accountable by citizens and the state,” said Turnbull.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #132 (Wednesday, December 21, 2011).

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