The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Scandal
Back in October, Jay Thayer, VP of operations at Entergy Nuclear, wrote a hopping-mad editorial in a Vermont newspaper.
Entergy wants the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend its operating license for the Vermont Yankee reactor, which has been in service for 37-years and is currently due to be decommissioned in 2012. Thayer wrote:
When Vermonters debate issues of importance to our way of life, each side expects the other to advocate passionately for its position. Each side also expects the other to employ a standard of truthfulness even though they disagree.
So it’s particularly sad to see that the Vermont Public Interest Research Group [VPIRG] resorted to subterfuge to try to convince Vermonters that Vermont Yankee should not be relicensed.
VPIRG’s was “misleading” the good citizens of Vermont, wrote Thayer, by asserting that the state didn’t need an aging nuke plant — it could do just fine by increasing energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy sources.
Thayer’s indignation seems a bit ironic to some Vermonters in light of current events. Last May, he testified under oath that there were no underground pipes carrying radioactive water at the plant he oversaw. When pressed on the issue, Thayer promised members of the Vermont Public Service Board, “I can do some research on that and get back to you.” That was the last they heard from Thayer on the issue.
In October a panel of nuclear experts appointed by the state legislature reported that there were, in fact, pipes buried under the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. They contained contaminated water. Entergy admitted that the pipes were there. Thayer’s statement, said a company representative, was just a “miscommunication.”
Thayer later used the “no-harm no-foul” defense.
“It was never my intention to mislead anyone,” he said, “and I apologize for the confusion that this has created.”
A Leak in the System
The problem went beyond miscommunication and confusion. In early January of this year, Entergy said it had found a trace amount of a tritium, a radioactive isotope, in a monitoring well at Vermont Yankee. The company put the level of contamination at 9,500 picocuries per liter. According to federal regulations, tritium in water doesn’t pose a health hazard until it reaches a concentration of 20,000 picocuries. (Public health experts are divided on whether any level of tritium should be considered safe.)
While an angry public and worried legislators pushed for answers, the level of contamination grew. Readings went to 17,000 and then to over 19,000 picocuries.
In a February 2 conference call with stakeholders, Entergy CEO J. Wayne Leonard announced that Jay Thayer, the company official who had “miscommunicated” with public officials about the presence of piping, had been “permanently relieved of his duties in Vermont” and placed on administrative leave.
But, Leonard reassured stockholders (and the public), “The existence of tritium in such low levels does not present a risk to public health or safety.”
Leonard’s statement may have been technically accurate, but only by a razor-thin margin. According to Entergy’s own readings, the tritium concentration was just 1% below the official hazardous level. And it was still climbing.
Following The Plume
Within days the public learned that radioactive contamination of Vermont Yankee test wells were at 70,000 picocuries — more than three times the official “safe” level.
“The source of the leak at Vermont Yankee continues to elude investigators,” Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council,” said last week. “The contamination has rapidly increased. And the underground plume appears to be spreading. This is a startling and potentially dangerous picture.”
The following day, Dr. Wendy Davis, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Health confirmed Courtney’s concern: the amount and direction of water flowing in the area, she said, indicated that the radioactive plume had already reached the Connecticut River– the major waterway in the region.
Entergy has said that tritium hasn’t shown up in their tests of Connecticut River water, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that the plume has reached the river.
While everyone concerned would like a swift resolution of the problem, a Vermont official familiar with this type of situation doesn’t think residents should get their hopes up.
“It’s going to take weeks to find the source or sources of the contamination,” says William Irwin, Radiological Health Chief, Vermont Department of Health, “and probably months to resolve it.”
Even that may be optimistic. It took more than a year to locate and fix a similar leak at Entergy’s Indian Point, New York, nuclear power plant. [UPDATE: Roger Witherspoon, an environmental journalist with years of experience covering nuclear energy, emailed me a correction -- the leak at the Indian Point power plant has not been fixed. The company thinks they've found the leak, he writes, and they've slowed it down. But, Witherspoon points out, "the leaking continues."]
Full Speed Ahead
Leaky pipes, radioactive plumes of groundwater spilling into rivers, and false testimony to oversight bodies notwithstanding, Entergy maintains there is no reason it should be denied a twenty-year extension on its license to operate Vermont Yankee. Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the PR and lobbying wing of the industry, explained the situation to the Associated Press recently:
These are industrial facilities, and any industrial facility from time to time is going to have equipment problems or challenges. Not every operational issue rises to the level of being a safety issue.
Vermont Yankee’s website can be found at www.safecleanreliable.com