Wednesday, February 3, 2010


It's easy to use inaccurate words. I do it. For example, I have been using tritium (which is a gas) as a shorthand for tritiated water. In the wells, they are measuring radiation levels due to tritiated water which is quite a mouthful. When I write tritium levels or tritium radiation levels, I don't think my shorthand is confusing to anybody.

But it could be. My shorthand could be the cause of miscommunication.

I think miscommunication occurred in the discussion of pipes, underground pipes and buried pipes. I have used some testimony to illustrate this.

On January 27, Arnie Gunderson testified before the House Natural Resources Committee, which entered his testimony into the public record. The Times Argus expanded on his testimony in a timeline published recently. To describe the confusion of words, I quote from Gundersen below. I also want to thank Mr. Gundersen for providing Howard Shaffer (and myself) with an electronic copy of his testimony. I have added emphasis to show the difficulties of word use.

Act 189 requires that the Vermont Yankee Public Oversight Panel evaluate: “An underground piping system that carries radionuclides."

According to Gundersen, the state Nuclear Engineer, William Sherman, responds to the panel on October 19, 2008: “…the Panel is informed there are no underground piping systems carrying radioactivity, the Panel designates the Service Water System, which has buried piping, to be evaluated.” 

On December 10, the Nuclear Engineer clarifies the statement above after speaking to David McElwee at Entergy. Sherman addresses the panel again, and his clarification includes the following terms: underground radioactive piping... the line was abandoned and the current drain is no longer buried piping...there was no buried radioactive piping.

The Oversight Panel accepted this statement and issued a report on December 22 which contains the statement that: "However, there are no underground piping systems carrying radionuclides at ENVY"

On May 20,2009, Jay Thayer of Entergy was asked about piping as part of testimony before the Public Service Board. He answered:  
I can do some research on that and get back to you, but I don't believe there are active piping systems underground containing contaminated  fluids today.

Thayer did not get back to the panel with an answer. This had consequences. On February 2, according the Entergy Fourth Quarter Earning Call Transcript, Wayne Leonard, Chairman and CEO of Entergy stated:
In May 2009, an Entergy executives testified in a hearing on the state's report that he didn't think we had any such pipes but he would get back to them. He did not get back to them. He has issued a public apology and made clear he failed to provide full and complete information he either on the witness stand or by failing to get back to them.

He has been permanently relieved of his duties in Vermont and placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the full investigation.

Back to our discussion of word use. In many of the quote above, underground and buried and piping carrying radionuclides and piping containing radioactivity are used almost interchangeably. In many cases, that would not matter. However, John Wheeler, a nuclear engineer and blogger, says that underground and buried do not mean the same thing to engineers. John states:

.... the phrases “Buried piping” and “underground piping” do NOT mean the same thing. To an engineer the term “buried” piping refers to piping that is buried underground in direct contact with the soil. Underground piping means the piping is below grade and could be located in a vault or concrete trench.

Arnie Gundersen apparently does not agree with these definitions of engineering terms. According to the Rutland Herald, he thinks these distinctions are merely semantics.

Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer and a member of the Public Oversight Panel, as well as a consultant to the Vermont Legislature, said Entergy was using semantics.

"ENVY is saying that if you die and you are put directly in the ground with dirt on top of you, you are buried. But if you die and are put in a casket, you are not buried, but you are 'underground,'" Gundersen said.

As I look at the history here, I see many opportunities for miscommunication. Underground and buried...what did these terms mean to the various players? Was Entergy asked about underground pipes, but answer about buried pipes? Did the nuclear engineer use the words buried, underground as if they were synonyms? Is John Wheeler correct about the use of underground and buried? Or is Gundersen correct in his implication that this is semantic obfuscation of a clear situation?

Were there honest communication errors?


rolf.parkerhoughton said...

Hello Meredith,

Here is an article from

excerpt below

“Other than piping carrying gaseous material … we have none,” McElwee wrote. He said the gases had “very low amounts of contamination” and no way to contaminate groundwater. “We consider this issue closed,” he said.

"no way to contaminate the groundwater" is the key bit in my opinion.

Also, I am afraid this may be beyond the definition of "buried" versus "undergroud" pipes, because at this point, Irwin notes that the plant appears to have pipes that are underground but also withot a vault and with water that is almost as contaminated with tritium as the water that passes through the reactor.

"He said he was concerned that the pipes carrying these high levels of radioactivity weren't in any kind of tunnel or vault so they could be routinely inspected for leakage."

From the Times Argus,

"It's personally disappointing," said Irwin, who said he believed that the pipes uncovered Saturday were some of the 40 pipes finally listed by Entergy Nuclear last month, after more than a year of saying such pipes didn't exist at Vermont Yankee."

I do not think that the miscommunication theory is holding as much water as it once may have.



Meredith Angwin said...

Hello Rolf

Thanks for the thoughtful post!

Though McElwee did say that about not contaminating groundwater, to me the important part of his testimony was when he said the equivalent of "we don't have that kind of pipe." Since I believe that he honestly thought that there were only pipes carrying gases, he would have explained that such pipes did not contaminate groundwater. The center to me was the "we don't have that kind of pipe."

However, if you think he was deliberately lying, then the groundwater remark was just to lay it on thicker. I don't think that was the case, but I think neither you nor I can prove what he was or was not thinking.

I have come to the conclusion that the first miscommunication was within the plant. Arnie Gundersen testified today that he thought there were twelve people at the plant who knew about the pipe.

Now, I don't know why Gundersen thinks there are twelve. But at another level, he is right anyway. Two, twelve or twenty people...somebody knew. And somehow, that did not get communicated to those testifying. It's a mess no matter how you cut it. I don't think it was a pre-meditated lie. I am sure that it wasn't. But. I do think this level of miscommunication makes the plant management look bad, to put it mildly.


(Rolf, I think we met and chatted in Montpelier? I was looking for your card, and I couldn't find it.)

rolf.parkerhoughton said...

Hello Meredith,

No, that wasn't me in Motpelier. I was no "walker." I assume that is what you are referring to? I wasn's sure.

First I wanted to thank you for letting me converse with you on your blog.

You previously wrote,

"Since I believe that he honestly thought that there were only pipes carrying gases, he would have explained that such pipes did not contaminate groundwater. The center to me was the "we don't have that kind of pipe."

But as noted by the Burlington Free Press, Act 189, asks for an exami­nation of “an underground piping sys­tem that carries radionuclides.”

"Active tritium has leaked from underground pipes at other nuclear plants around the country, so lawmakers and others wanted to know if that might be a problem at the Vermont reactor."

In fact, McElwee must be aware of the tritium leaks at Braidwood, Oyster Creek etc, (and that Oyster Creek got it's reliscence just days before the rather large leaks of tritium were reported from that plant).

For an engineer of McElwee's stature to know the context of the legislators's concerns, the meaning of the act, and to NOT know
about the existence of underground pipes seems, shocking in and of itself.

First because it speaks of a severe lack of knowledge of his own system.

Secondly because, as you suggest, he would have to have been misinformed by others at the plant. How could this fundamental information not make it McElwee? If he was misinformed, who made these erroneous statements to McElwee?

It seems untenable, no, that the existence of underground pipes carrying radionucleotides could be either hidden or accidentally not brought to the attention of some of McElwee's stature ?

Of course, as you say, we have no proof of what was in McElwee's mind.

But that being the case, why go so far against Occam's razor and state you believe he wasn't merely lying? It almost seems this is a starting place for you, and not a conclusion.

And if he wasn't lying, who misinformed him, and how?

Nay, miscommunication is getting thinner and thinner as an explanation.

Especially as we have other instances where outright lying has benefitted potential polluters in the past. Chevron for example admitted to criminal charges of diluting their water samples of their effluent that they were releasing into the Santa Barbara Channel. Obviously no one working at Chevron works at VY. The point is, the corporate fall guy is not a creation of the novel writer. People lie at all kinds of times, and one of those times is to advance the cause of one's employee.

A delay in the legislators' knowledge of the very existence of the underground pipes elevated (for a time at least) any concern the legislature had concerning these pipes, pipes that everyone knew had a history at other plants of leaking.

The delay in this case appears not to have lasted long enough to influence the decision making by the legislature.

But, who knows. There is no certainty with this kind of thing.

However, not all of us who live near Yankee are "gleeful" over this apparent (yes, apparent) deception. We are getting closer to being enraged. I admit it did bother me that you painted those of us who are concerned with a broad brush on that score.

Anyway, thanks again for letting me converse with you on your blog in this manner. Not eveyone would, and I repsect you for that.



Meredith Angwin said...


Thank you for writing again. I did think you were one of the walkers I met at Montpelier, and I am sorry. There was one very nice professorial man who gave me his card, and I can't find his card, so I have this guilt trip about it.

Of course I will engage with people who have well-documented thoughtful posts. As a matter of fact, I would like to ask permission to put excerpts from your posts and my answers up as a posting. Sort of elevate the conversation to more visibility. I am afraid that if I posted all your words and mine, though, it might be a horrendously long post.

Two comments right now, however. First, I did not mean to imply that everyone against VY was "gleeful"about the tritium leak. However, I was at a potluck with a fair number of gleeful people when it was announced. Some people are pretty happy, and that is a fact I observed with my own eyes. I am sorry if my post over-generalized: I didn't mean to do so.

You speak of Occam's razor, as if I am going on blind faith about people testifying under oath. I know that some people lie under oath, but I also know that some people are quick to say "liar". I have no idea where Gundersen got his comments on: ethics, ethical cancers, twelve people at the plant, etc. but he's making some assumptions about lying. I make the opposite assumption. You have to PROVE to me that an engineer deliberately lied, I don't assume it.

By the way, I am not hopelessly naive. For example, I find it easier to believe that managers lie than that engineers lie. Engineers have their personal integrity at stake, and managers have their jobs at stake. I always look for the miscommunication issue with engineers. Just so you know where I am coming from on this.


rolf.parkerhoughton said...

Hello Meredith,

I hope you did not take my comments as delvered in a sarcastic tone regarding the ability of people to lie, or any naivete.

And I don't mean to belabor the point like some obsessed poster who likes to re-read their own comments.

At this point however, in order to not come to the conclussion that McElwee was not being decptive, it would require, I believe, all of the following hurdles to be cleared.

1) He didn't look at plans, diagrams, maps, blueprints, showing where both underground pipes and buried pipes on the plant. (We now know the plant has both buried and underground pipes that carry contaminated water, so the importance of the whole definition of such as an alternative explanation to have been a red herring.)

2) It requires that there was basically a conspiracy to hide this information from him, does it not? This information is so basic, and any information of this nature must be held by the plant in some library, archive, etc where any engineer could review as needed, no?

At any rate, Arnie Gunderson agrees with you,on Dave McElwee, and not me.

"Gundersen said he didn't fault senior Entergy Nuclear engineer David McElwee for the incorrect information. "He got his information from engineers on the staff. I think McElwee is a professional," Gundersen said."

While he still believes that engineers must have been involved, he doesn't fault McElwee. I am trying to defer to him and to you on this score. I still find it unbelevable that McElwee could have been kept in the dark. If he was kept in the dark, that will help him should the AG get involved over the sworn testimony.

Gunderson goes on to say that he thought the plant was grossly understaffed.

That doesn't seem to possibly explain the deception, in my eyes. I think Mr Gunderson maybe is being charitable.



PS, as far as using any excerpts from all of this, I am as honored as I leery as my typos are an embaressment to me, and how would we agree to any reduced form. Like most writers in blog land, I tend to over value the worth of every line. But we could probably manage.

Thanks for asking

Joffan said...

Meredith, do you have the context (or transcript) of that 19 Oct 2008VYPOP session?

I wonder what "underground piping system that carries radionuclides", Act 189 Sec 3(a)(7), the panel was actually intended to address in their reliability assessment, and why. It's interesting that the actual tritium leak had no effect whatsoever on the reliability as expressed by the Act, which was related to plant power reductions and outages. This suggests that Mr Sherman's switch to the Service Water system was the correct decision for the panel, assuming that its mission was honestly stated.

Meredith Angwin said...

I don't have the transcript, but I have forwarded your comment to my friend Howard Shaffer, who was a start-up engineer at the plant, and we will try to figure this out for you.