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Protestors disrupt annual NRC meeting

Group invokes warnings of former chairman; regulators give VY high marks

BRATTLEBORO—On Tuesday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission held its annual open house and public question-and-answer session on the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

But unlike last year, when the meeting was disrupted by anti-nuclear protesters and ultimately cut short, this year’s meeting at Brattleboro Union High School had significantly more security.

Police searched the bags of all those who entered the meeting room, and no signs or banners affixed to sticks or poles were allowed in.

NRC officials tried to start the meeting as scheduled at 7 p.m. However, the people that disrupted last year’s meeting, the Shut It Down Affinity Group, succeeded in delaying it for about 10 minutes while they read a statement quoting from a recent New York Times interview with former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Jaczko told the Times that “all 104 nuclear power reactors now in operation in the United States have a safety problem that cannot be fixed and they should be replaced with newer technology . . . . Continuing to put Band-Aid on Band-Aid is not going to fix the problem.”

Wearing masks of Jaczko’s face, the group said the continued operation of VY was “not acceptable” and that the NRC and Entergy should be indicted on criminal charges for endangering the public.

After attempting to start the meeting, the panel decided to leave the room and let the group have their say. Once they did, they sat down, and the meeting resumed.

As an audience of 50 looked on, the NRC reviewed the findings of its annual report on safety issues at VY

On March 4, the NRC notified Entergy Nuclear, the owner of Vermont Yankee, that the Vernon reactor operated safely during 2012.

“The NRC determined that overall, Vermont Yankee operated in a manner that preserved public health and safety and met all cornerstone objectives,” NRC Branch Chief Ron Bellamy wrote in a letter to Chris Wamser, site vice president of Vermont Yankee.

At the end of the fourth quarter of 2012, the plant did not have any inspection findings that were greater than green (rising to the level requiring additional NRC oversight) or any performance indicators that were other than green (exceeding the threshold for the indicator and requiring additional NRC oversight).

As a result, Chris Miller, director of reactor safety for NRC Region 1, said Tuesday that Vermont Yankee will continue to receive its normal level of oversight during 2013.

Plants that meet criteria set out by the NRC receive the normal level of oversight, which the agency says consists of a detailed regime involving thousands of hours of inspection.

At an open house before the hearing, Miller said the NRC devoted approximately 5,780 hours of inspection to VY.

There were several incidents at VY in 2012, including a missing risk analysis, a missing flood seal, and a poorly installed condenser.

Based on the agency’s color-coded inspection findings and performance indicators to assess plant performance, those incidents were considered green, or of “low-safety significance.”

As for concerns about spent fuel storage at the plant, Miller said at a news conference on Monday that the agency has determined that VY’s 513 metric tons of spent fuel are being stored safely.

In mid-April, Robert Alvarez, a former official with the U.S. Department of Energy, told Vermont lawmakers that the spent fuel pool at VY is holding four times the amount of fuel rods intended in the original design. Alvarez said spent fuel pools “are nothing more, in my opinion, than warehouses.”

“We’re satisfied with the spent-fuel storage at VY,” Miller said Tuesday. “Both dry casks and the pool are acceptable, but we as an agency are not standing still on the issue.”

Miller added that the NRC is looking at new policies concerning fuel storage, but since off-site long-term spent-fuel storage is still impossible, on-site storage will have to do.

Other concerns included staffing levels at the plant. Miller said Tuesday that there has been relatively little turnover at VY, despite ongoing uncertainty over the plant’s future.

“Is there a brain drain? I haven’t seen it,” he said.

Senior Resident Inspector Scott Rutenkroger said Tuesday that the plant, which just recently completed a scheduled refueling and maintenance outage, has done a good job of “finding and fixing problems before they get bigger.”

Even though the plant received authorization in 2011 from the NRC to operate another 20 years after the expiration of its original 40-year license last year, it still needs a Certificate of Public Good from the Vermont Public Service Board to legally operate.

A decision from that board is not due until later this year.

Entergy also is embroiled in a federal lawsuit with the state over the question of how much regulatory authority Vermont has over VY. That question will be taken up soon in the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #201 (Wednesday, May 1, 2013).

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