Leaders talk with NRC on Yankee
By Susan Smallheer
STAFF WRITER | January 27,2010
Vermont's congressional delegation said Tuesday they told the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they expected the agency to be "the cop on the beat," making sure Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor was doing all it could to stop radioactive leaks.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., met privately with NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko late Tuesday afternoon in Sanders' office about what the delegation called "alarming reports" about continuing radioactive leaks at the Vernon reactor.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Department of Health reported that 60 more gallons of water were found Tuesday in an underground trench containing pipes that carry radioactive waste at Yankee.
Tests are pending on whether that water, which the health department said probably came from Monday's rainstorm, was contaminated with radioactivity. The trench is supposed to be watertight.
Entergy Nuclear spokesman Robert Williams said the company didn't know how the water ended up in the underground trench, or vault, as Entergy Nuclear is now calling it.
That particular trench has been the source of the highest level of radioactivity since the tritium leaks became public on Jan. 7. Levels reached more than 2 million picocuries per liter in the trench last week, a hundred times higher than the current drinking water standard of 20,000 picocuries per liter. Tritium has also been measured in one well monitoring groundwater.
Entergy officials said the water in the trench was contained and cleaned up, but Tuesday's news marks the third time water has been cleaned out of the trench in about a week.
Sanders and Leahy stressed that Vermonters had lost confidence in not just Entergy Nuclear, the owner of Vermont Yankee, but also the NRC's ability to oversee the plant and regulate Entergy.
"There is enormous anxiety," Sanders told reporters in a conference call after the Jaczko meeting. Sanders said the credibility of Entergy was at stake.
"Our demand is that NRC move as aggressively as it can," said Sanders, in locating the leak and stopping it.
The delegation also asked the NRC "to try and get to the truth about what Entergy has been saying or not saying" to state officials about buried piping.
"As a Vermonter, I want to have somebody I can believe," Leahy said. "In my case, I don't find the company credible," he said.
Welch said Vermonters, particularly southern Vermont residents, had lost any confidence they had in Entergy.
"The excuses never end," he said.
On Monday, two NRC officials arrived at Vermont Yankee to oversee Entergy's work trying to find the leak. Those two officials include a senior health physicist and the NRC Region 1 chief for radiation protection.
The delegation said it wasn't just the leak that disturbed them and Vermonters, but the fact that Entergy Nuclear executives gave erroneous information to Vermont state regulators, claiming a year ago that there were no buried pipes at Vermont Yankee that contained radionuclides.
On Monday, the company released a list of at least 40 such pipes, which have turned out to be a source of radioactive contamination at other nuclear power plants and have driven up decommissioning costs.
Entergy Nuclear has been trying to find the source of a radioactive leak for more than three weeks, and Sanders said the NRC told the delegation they expected the source of the leak would be identified in the next couple of weeks.
Sanders, Leahy and Welch all said Vermonters were alarmed by the radioactive leak, which first showed up in low levels in one monitoring well during tests in November. Since then, the level has been climbing. Tuesday's most recent level was 23,000 picocuries per liter in the well.
A new monitoring well was drilled Tuesday next to the suspect radwaste trench, Williams said. He said that Entergy was already investigating the structural integrity of the trench, which is one of several that carry underground pipes containing radionuclides.
Entergy Nuclear is now drawing a distinction between what it calls pipes and trenches, or vaults, which can contain several pipes.
Entergy is focusing its attention on three systems as the source of the leak: the advanced off-gas system, the condensate storage tank and the radwaste collection system.
On Monday, the Conservation Law Foundation filed a request with the Vermont Public Service Board that Vermont Yankee be shut down until the source of the radioactive leak is identified and the issue of company executives' testimony is resolved.
Attorney Sandra Levine said the latest leak, and the misstatements to state regulators by Entergy Nuclear Vice President Jay Thayer, were part of a continuing pattern of behavior of Entergy.
"It's an effort to level the playing field and put the onus back on Entergy," Levine said.
Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the leak at Vermont Yankee is not as serious as at other nuclear reactors. Currently, there are about two dozen reactors with tritium leaks.
Sheehan said the NRC had never shut down a nuclear reactor because of radioactive leaks.