A key legislative oversight panel is criticizing Entergy Vermont Yankee's for lacking a "questioning attitude" that has led to a number of system failures at the aging reactor in recent years.
The Vermont Yankee Public Oversight Panel (POP) also concluded that Entergy didn't deliberately mislead a legislative panel or a state consultant when it neglected to inform them last August about underground pipes that carry radionuclides.
The three-member panel includes former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Peter Bradford, nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, and retired nuclear scientist Fred Sears.
Last summer, Gundersen questioned key Entergy engineers about whether there were underground pipes that could potentially be leaking.
The response: No. Case closed.
The panel noted, however, that had Entergy been more forthcoming with its responses and corrected any mistakes, once in print, it could have avoided millions in unnecessary costs.
"Had this been done in August 2009, before the leaks were discovered, Vermont Yankee’s reputation would hardly have suffered. Most, if not all of the Entergy employees who have been removed from Vermont Yankee would still be employed there. Several million dollars spent responding to the inaccurate statement issue would have been available for other uses," the report reads.
It's believed the leaking pipes identified earlier this year — and which state officials believe have been leaking for perhaps more than a year — should have been disclosed last year during a legislatively mandated inspection of the plant's pipes and systems.
State officials also noted that a series of sinkholes should have alerted plant officials to a subsurface problem.
The leak sent hundreds of thousands of gallons of tritium-laced water into the ground near Vermont Yankee and likely into the Connecticut River. Additionally, other radioactive isotopes — including cesium and strontium 90 — have been found in the soil, which is now being excavated and eventually will be removed from the site.
Entergy Vermont Yankee has spent millions of dollars cleaning up the site and trying to clean up its image with state regulators and the public. It recently relaunched a series of advertisements on the radio and online under the IAMVY banner.
The panel said previous incidents at the plant, including a spectacular collapse of a cooling tower and a later partial collapse, along with other mishaps, raise doubts about Entergy's ability to thoroughly review its systems.
"This organization-wide breakdown appears to indicate that the cultural norms that allowed personnel to perpetuate misstatements for 12 months are endemic throughout the Vermont Yankee organization," the report reads. "The systemic nature of the failures to communicate accurately in important forums and the sheer number of persons involved amplifies the Panel’s earlier concern that there is a lack of a questioning attitude within ENVY’s organization and corporate structure."
Earlier this year, legislative leaders reconvened the POP to reevaluate its reliability assessment of Vermont Yankee because it had been demonstrated that Entergy provided incorrect information to the POP.
Originally, the POP had expected to have its work done before the legislature took any action this session, but their work was delayed by the ongoing tritium investigation.
Legislative leaders saw little in the report to give them confidence in Entergy's ability to run the plant beyond its scheduled closure date of 2012.
"Vermont deserves better than what Entergy Louisiana is offering. The plant’s 2012 retirement date has been scheduled since it was built, giving its out-of-state corporate owners years to make their case. They have failed,” said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin. “Instead, they have misled us and attempted to evade their responsibilities for clean-up costs. This report further demonstrates that the Vermont Senate made the correct decision to close the aging plant on schedule in its vote this year.”
House Speaker Shap Smith agreed.
“As we pursue a reliable, clean and affordable energy future, it is critical that Vermonters are assured of the reliability and credibility of those running this aging nuclear plant,” said Smith. “The cultural norms that allowed personnel to repeatedly make misstatements call into question ENVY's trustworthiness as an organization."
In a statement, the Vermont Energy Partnership, which has advocated for the relicensing of Vermont Yankee, said the report provided some key guidance for regulators and lawmakers and reaffirms the panel's central finding in its 2009 report: VY can be operated reliably beyond 2012.
The panel did offer that conclusion, but it also stressed dozens of areas in which it felt Entergy should improve operations.
"The partnership hopes that this central conclusion is given due consideration as Vermont policy makers consider relicensing in the coming months," the group said.
The POP did note that VY had completed a long stretch of operation without an unplanned shutdown.
"Operating 531 days without shutting down was a considerable reliability achievement," the panel noted in its report.
Still, the report's conclusion didn't give a complete thumbs up to Entergy.
"No report written today can state conclusively that Vermont Yankee will or will not be operated reliably for an additional 20 years," the report reads. "Entergy cannot operate VY reliably for an additional 20 years unless it successfully reestablishes a corporate culture where its individual employees and the organization as a whole have a questioning attitude, and where adequate resources are consistently spent on nonsafety systems."
Download the full report: POP VY Supplemental Report 072010