Vermont Yankee presents post-Fukushima safety, emergency plans

Vermont Yankee gave a detailed presentation on July 9 of safety and emergency changes in response to Japan's 2011 Fukushima disaster, in a quiet public hearing at the Statehouse attended by about a dozen people.

Unlike last year's more crowded Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel (VSNAP) hearings, only three members of the public testified.

Representing Vermont Yankee, Entergy's state liaison engineer Bernard Buteau gave a 45 minute presentation on how the plant and the nuclear industry is addressing concerns raised by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Tier 1 or short-term immediate issues, which require attention in light of Fukushima, include how a plant can be ready to mitigate severe natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes, through advance design and personnel planning.

The presentation focused mostly on these problems. Among Tier 1 recommendations for Vermont Yankee specifically:

• Mitigation strategies for cases where cooling elements in the plant fail (e.g., loss of the river or dam), or extended loss of electrical power;

• Reassessing the Mark 1 containment vent;

• Installing new spent-fuel pool instruments;

• Re-evaluation and inspection of the plant's capacity to handle earthquake and flooding scenarios.

In March of this year, the NRC ordered Vermont Yankee to deal with upgrading its current container vent for the Mark 1 reactor, which dates back to the early 1990s, as well as handle spent-fuel pool items and develop strategies for handling natural disasters and other unpredictable events.

In April 2012, the plant acknowledged it had no hardship addressing the specific concerns raised by the NRC.

Because detailed interim staff guidance will be issued by the NRC next month, some details remain unknown, such as necessary design specifications for the upgraded vent housing the Mark 1 reactor.

Entergy is also creating an internal “Fukushima response organization” to deal with and select contractors for equipment changes, to which Buteau said Entergy will commit more than 100 employees.

After the presentation, VSNAP panel members questioned Buteau and Michael Romeo, a nuclear safety assurance official at Vermont Yankee, on technical and regulatory points.

Regulations and waivers

State Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, questioned whether the NRC-imposed standards were too relaxed, allowing virtually the entire industry easy compliance, or alternatively easily obtained waivers if plants did not meet standards.

“The NRC has the strictest regulations in the world,” said MacDonald after the hearing. “But people who don't meet their strict regulations are eligible for waivers, and they get them.”

“They change the graduation requirements, and everybody graduates,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how many plants fail to meet the new higher standards of the NRC or, if once again, every plant will pass.”

MacDonald described Vermont Yankee as “patting themselves on the back” for working towards the standards early, but said the deadline was set considerably far ahead.

Another panel member, Bill Irwin, the radiological expert for the Vermont Department of Health, also said that deadlines for NRC compliance were set too far in the future and, hoped that VY will have made changes by 2014, rather than the later NRC deadline of Dec. 31, 2016.

VSNAP chair Elizabeth Miller described the meeting as more “lightly attended” than previous hearings in Windham County.

“Frankly, I knew it would be difficult given the interim nature – the plant is waiting for so much still – but I thought it'd be important for the panel to have a framework” for understanding the changes.

Miller is concerned about pending station blackout rules and steam dryer inspection protocol.

Pro-nuclear activist Meredith Angwin, a Wilder resident, said that the “absolutely clear” and “complex” presentation answered all the right questions, while Richard Garant, an anti-nuclear activist and former Brattleboro Selectboard member, denounced the planned improvements as a “show game.”

“These improvements are very vague, and the presentation was just a stock presentation,” said Garant. “But I didn't expect a whole lot different.”

This first VSNAP meeting of the year featured new panel member Dr. Leslie Kanat, a geology professor at Johnson State College and public member.

The next VSNAP meeting is likely to be scheduled in September.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates