The Vermont legislature's top two Democrats — House Speaker Shap Smith and President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin — are asking the state Department of Public Service and Entergy to shut down Vermont Yankee for up to three months in order to replace all underground and buried pipes that have been the source of ongoing leaks at the aging reactor.
The pair were joined by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier) at a press conference yesterday in Burlington. They announced they were sending a letter to DPS Commissioner David O'Brien (see full text of letter below).
In the past two weeks, Entergy Vermont Yankee admitted the highly-radioactive isotope strontium-90 was found in soil at the reactor site, and just this weekend a "new leak" was found in a pipe adjacent to the spot where two pipes leaked thousands of gallons of tritium into the environment earlier this year.
"We believe that Entergy should replace the underground pipes with either above-ground pipes or put the replacement pipes in a vault that is easily accessed," said Shumlin. "A leak a week is not acceptable to Vermonters."
During a recent refueling outage, ENVY rerouted steam trap drainlines in the advanced off-gas system that were found to be the source of tritium leaks. In all, four pipes were replaced or rerouted.
So, how could they miss the pipe that just sprouted a leak? ENVY spokesman Larry Smith said this new leaking pipe is only in use when the plant is in startup mode, which is where it was Friday night when the leak was noticed.
The new leak was attributed to a one-eighth-inch hole in a two-inch pipe found late Friday night near the same AOG trench that contained the stream trap drain lines. In total, a quart of water with tritium leaked from the pipe.
On Monday, Entergy took the new, leaking pipe out of service by first plugging it up, and then shutting off a valve leading to the pipe to ensure that no steam or water could leak into the pipe.
Lawmakers think more needs to be done to ensure that all pipes carrying radionuclides are either easily accessible and monitored or above-ground.
Shumlin said Exelon is doing similar pipe replacement work at its nuclear power plant in New Jersey, as is Entergy at its nuclear reactor in Michigan. He estimated the cost of replacing the pipes to be $10 million.
At Vermont Yankee, Larry Smith said, recent work to either reroute or take out of service other pipes has left the key pipes in view in the pipe trench.
"Our improved ability to monitor underground piping is what allowed us to stop that leak in four hours," said Larry Smith. "It's on the list for every shift to go look at that excavation site and the pipe tunnel to ensure there is no leakage of any kind in the tunnel or from any of the drain lines."
In fact, it was during one shift late Friday that a worker spotted water and saw what he believed to be a wisp of vapor coming from a pipe, said Larry Smith. Within four hours the pipe was fixed, and within 48 hours sealed off from use entirely.
Shumlin called the ongoing leakage of tritium, strontium-90, cesium and other radionuclides as the "greatest environmental crisis in Vermont's history."
This is Vermont's BP," said Shumlin, referencing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico due to an offshore drilling operation gone awry under the watch of British Petroleum.
Speaker Shap Smith said one lesson from environmental disasters like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is to prevent them before they happen. Replacing the pipes at Vermont Yankee would stop more leaks from occurring, he said.
"We've already seen the consequences of what happens when you don't take care of the piping," said Shap Smith, referring to earlier leaks at Vermont Yankee.
Klein said shutting down the plant for just three months to replace the pipe is only a short-term fix.
"I don't think the fix is replacing the piping. I think the real fix is to close it down before 2012," said Klein, who said he was not surprised by the latest news of leaks at the plant or more radionuclides being found in the soil.
Larry Smith said it would be irresponsible to shut the plant down because of a leak that has been found and stopped.
"There's no health or safety risk to the public from this leak that has been already corrected," said Smith. "We realize the leak issue is serious, and we take it seriously, but it would be irresponsible and costly to Vermonters to take the plant offline as we head into the summer months just because of a very small leak at the plant — a leak that has been fixed."
Smith said Entergy is now trying to figure out what caused the pipe to leak, and if there are additional steps it needs to take to ensure no other pipes are leaking.
If Vermont Yankee were leaking radionuclides and tritium into Lake Champlain instead of the Connecticut River, Shumlin said he expects there would be a greater outcry from the public and top officials in Vermont.
State lawmakers aren't the only ones concerned about how ENVY could have missed a faulty pipe so close to other leaking pipes after spending months investigating this particular part of the plant. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has dispatched a special inspector to Vernon to help answer those questions.
That didn't completely comfort Klein.
"What is it going to take for state regulators and the NRC to raise the white flag on this plant and other plants like it?" asked Klein.
The full text of Shumlin & Smith's letter to the Department of Public Service:
June 2, 2010
Commissioner David O’Brien
Department of Public Service
112 State Street, Drawer 20
Montpelier, VT 05602
Dear Commissioner O’Brien,
In light of the latest discovery that the underground piping at Vermont Yankee is leaking tritium and numerous, more dangerous radioactive isotopes including strontium-90, we formally request that the Department of Public Service use all reasonable means to mandate that Vermont Yankee retrofit its piping to either relocate them above ground and/or have full access to the underground piping by using underground vaults for the remainder of Vermont Yankee’s current license period.
Over the past several years, there have been numerous leaks originating in the Advanced Off-Gas (AOG) drain lines. The source of these leaks was from either the underground piping or non-readily accessible pipes. At least one other nuclear power plant, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, has taken steps to seal all of its buried piping in monitored vaults or bring pipes above ground in response to its own tritium leak.
It is clear that the leak discovered late last week did not develop quickly. Considering the inaccessibility of the pipes, we are concerned about the length of time this current pipe has been leaking. We are also concerned that there may be other potential leaks not discovered to date. The fact that the most recent leak was missed during the intense scrutiny of inspections of the AOG system is extremely disturbing. Entergy’s management of the reactor has repeatedly failed to demonstrate competence and has not exercised the necessary degree of administrative control and oversight.
Bringing all of Vermont Yankee’s pipes above ground and/or accessible by vaults is the only way that we can be assured that there will be no more missed leaks over the remaining two years of its license. Ensuring more accessible access to visibly inspect the pipes is of paramount importance.
Thank you for your attention to this critical matter. We look forward to continuing to work with you.
Senate President Pro-Tem Peter Shumlin Speaker Shap Smith