NRC comes to town, met with skepticism and hostility
BRATTLEBORO -- A meeting that was intended to discuss the 2013 operation of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon turned into an opportunity for people critical of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's oversight of the nuclear industry to vent their frustration.
"We know you are lying and we know you are incompetent," said Hattie Nestle, of Athol, Mass., a member of the Shut It Down Affinity Group, which has staged numerous protests at the power plant's gates resulting in arrests for trespassing. "Coming here is an effort to placate us and make us think everything is fine."
Unlike much of the cat calls, booing and disruptions that peppered the two-hour meeting, which were taken in stride by representatives of the NRC, Bill Dean, the NRC's Region 1 administrator, took umbrage with Nestle's comments.
"That's very insulting," he said. "Every one of the NRC individuals here takes their role and responsibilities very seriously. We take our jobs very seriously and do them to the utmost of our abilities. I really have to seriously take offense to that last comment you made on behalf of all the NRC staff here."
The NRC was in the auditorium of Brattleboro Union High School on the evening of May 28, to present its findings on the 2013 operation of the plant and to also discuss its oversight of the site during its decommissioning.
In August 2013, Entergy, which owns and operates the plant, it was shuttering the plant on Dec. 31, 2014, due to the financial pressures exerted by natural gas flooding the market and lowering the cost of electricity production.
Dean began the presentation by stating during 2013 the plant operated safely with no findings that were greater than a low level of safety significance. The findings were based upon 6,000 hours of inspections conducted by both the two resident inspectors and visiting inspectors from the NRC, said Dean. This year, he said, the NRC plans to conduct between 5,000 and 6,000 hours of inspection focused on aspects such as preventative maintenance and corrective action plans, "Where we might see some backsliding" due to the plant's imminent closure.
Bruce Watson, the chief of the NRC's Reactor Decommissioning Branch, spoke about the NRC's oversight of the site after the plant ceases operation. He informed the 35 or so people in the audience that the NRC has, since 1997, overseen decommissioning at 80 sites, which includes seven power reactors, 13 research reactors and 50 complex materials sites.
"All have been released for unrestricted use," said Watson, who noted that unrestricted use doesn't include the footprint of the independent spent fuel storage facilities where nuclear waste is being housed at each site in expectation it will one day be removed by the federal government for permanent disposal in a geological repository.
Watson said the safety record of the licensees who have conducted decommissioning "has been excellent."
The next step for Entergy is to prepare its license termination plan and its Post Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, said Watson.
"We will hold a public meeting to solicit comment on the license termination plan," he said. "And during all phases of decommissioning we will continue to inspect the plant."
The meeting was then interrupted by members of the Shut It Down Affinity Group who read, in unison, a statement about the hazards of storing nuclear waste in spent fuel pools.
"This is a disaster waiting to happen," said Nestle. "We are speaking the truth to the NRC, which denies the truth of the dangers of spent fuel."
During different portions of the meeting, a critic of the NRC played a laugh track from a portable device. Presenters were often interrupted a number of times by outbursts from Brattleboro resident Gary Sachs, who criticized the NRC and the nuclear industry in general.
Several speakers, including Clay Turnbull, of the New England Coalition, which has fought the plant's operation since before its startup in 1972, brought up the issue of Entergy's corrective action plan related to control cables in underground conduits that were discovered to be submerged by water, though they were not rated for submersion.
Scott Rutenkroger, the NRC's senior resident inspector at Yankee, said Entergy had addressed the issue by installing new seals and sump pumps, but there had been some miscommunication between contractors that led to some flood seals not being installed. But, he said, all of those issues have since been resolved and all the cables that did not pass their integrity tests were replaced.
Guy Page, from the Vermont Energy Partnership, reminded those in attendance that since Entergy purchased Yankee in 2002, the plant has been one of New England's most reliable baseload producers, and has consistently provided power at or sometimes below market rates.
"During the last 10 years Vermont Yankee has avoided an estimated 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide," said Page. "As Vermont Yankee approaches closure sometime around the New Year, the historical record shows the plant has been a safe, reliable, environmentally sound, and affordable power generator. Do you see another generator in the Northeast that is likely to come on board in the next 5 or ten years that can replicate that record?"
Diana Sidebotham, a former president of the New England Coalition and resident of Putney, asked why Entergy has to wait for the approximately $800 million necessary to begin decommissioning the plant while it already has more than $625 million in the trust fund set aside for the site's cleanup and while most of the people who know the plant the best are still onsite.
She was told that "it's an efficiency issue," and once the decommissioning is started, it needs to be conducted in one process and not in separate phases because money was taken out of the fund before the fund has reached acceptable levels.
Sidebotham also expressed concern that the emergency preparedness zone around Vermont Yankee could be eliminated in less than 18 months after the plant ceases operation.
"It strikes a lot of us as poor judgment to eliminate an EPZ where there is still a great deal of spent fuel in the spent fuel pool, far more than Vermont Yankee was licensed for," she said.
In his response, Dean said that while there is at least seven times as much spent fuel in the pool as the plant was originally licensed for, each increase in storage capacity has been evaluated and approved by the NRC.
"The current spent fuel pool has been licensed and approved to handle that amount of fuel," he said.
He also pointed out that 15 to 18 months following shutdown, the nuclear waste will have decayed to a point that there are measures in place to react to any emergency related to the spent fuel pool.
Most of the critics of the NRC in the audience were not reassured by Dean's comments, and reacted to it with hostile skepticism.
Lorie Cartwright, of Brattleboro, referred to the disaster at Fukushima as an example of what could happen at a plant and how it could affect the many people who live in the tri-state region around Yankee. She also wondered if there is an emergency on the plant, what outside resources will be called in to assist.
"If we have to take guardianship over this high-level nuclear waste, don't we deserve some extra federal funding to beef up our emergency response?" she asked.
Bob Kahler, branch chief of the NRC's Emergency Preparedness Inspection and Regulatory Improvements Branch, said while off-site emergency planning will no longer be needed after the spent fuel has sufficiently cooled, on-site planning and preparation will continue.
He suggested that people concerned about how the elimination of the EPZ will affect off-site planners should discuss it with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.