Watchdogs weigh in on review of Yankee (Brattleboro Reformer)

NOTE: Senator Sanders has introduced legislation to provide for independent safety assessments of nuclear power plants when utilities seek to extend licenses, boost power output at aging plants or at plants with a history of safety violations. Read more here.


MONTPELIER -- Proponents of an independent safety assessment for Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant told members of the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday they want an extensive review of the Entergy-owned plant's systems and operations and they will settle for no less.

"You have the power to demand that (Entergy) fund an independent, contracted examination if they won't do it," said Raymond Shadis, a consultant for the New England Coalition.

Since Gov. James Douglas and the Department of Public Service signaled their support for an inspection of the Vernon plant outside of the standard oversight process conducted by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, state lawmakers have been trying to figure out just what such an inspection would look like.

Not since the 1996 independent safety assessment of Maine Yankee led to that plant's closure has an ISA been conducted, so it is unclear what Vermont's version would consist of and who would be in charge of administering it.

The Finance Committee is currently reviewing a bill sponsored by Sen. Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, and Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, which would require an

ISA before Vermont Yankee's operating license could be extended beyond 2012.

In order to clarify the ISA's composition and mission, the committee took testimony Tuesday from representatives of the industry and its regulators and on Wednesday from several of the plant's longtime opponents.

"No one questions the state's right to ensure the reliability of the electricity supplied by Entergy to Vermonters," said Ed Anthes, a spokesman for Nuclear Free Vermont by 2012. "What's needed now is a much more thorough examination than anything done before at (Vermont Yankee) or done routinely by the NRC."

Along with Shadis and Anthes, the committee heard from David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, James Moore of Vermont Public Interest Research Group and independent nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen.

While the five men disagreed on some of the specifics of the ISA for which they are calling, they concurred that the NRC's current reactor oversight program is insufficient.

"Based on past experience, there is limited confidence in the NRC, DPS and (Public Service Board's) ability to secure a truly transparent, independent, comprehensive analysis of (Vermont Yankee)," Moore said.

Though they referred to it by different names, Shadis and Gundersen both called for a "womb to tomb" inspection that would look at the adequacy of the plant's original design, the effect of alterations made since it was built, its ability to assess and correct itself, and a number of other factors.

According to Gundersen, such an inspection could include 23 NRC inspectors, nine outside contractors and three independent observers, altogether working 17,000 man-hours at a cost of $1.7 million.

While the NRC has said that it took the lessons of Maine Yankee and incorporated them into the current reactor oversight process, Shadis argued that the federal agency has cut back on its inspections and is relying upon guesswork and luck.

"The problem today is that in order to reduce the burden and lighten the load, redundancy is being removed and done away with. It's being replaced with probabilistic risk assessment: what are the chances both of these tubes are going to fail on the same day?" Shadis said.

"The NRC will say they have an ongoing program and that a new ISA would be a snapshot, but really that's turning it on its head. If anyone is doing a snapshot, it's them and it's every three years. It would take 30 years before it added up to the family photo album an ISA represents," Shadis added.

Though Entergy was given the chance to speak at the end of the committee meeting, a representative for the company declined.

Members of the committee questioned each of their witnesses and some appeared skeptical at times, but Chairwoman Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said she believes the bill will wind its way successfully through the Senate and House.

"My hope is we all want to achieve the same thing," she said. "We have to restore public confidence in the plant, and I would think Entergy would need that."

"I go to bed at night praying I'm wrong," Gundersen said. "I hope to make my nights a little easier."