Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Morning After

Believe me, friends, it feels like a "morning after." Wednesday the news came thick and fast. An all-day video feed of the Senators. The vote. The announcement that Entergy was disciplining employees. The announcement that the NRC had commented and would issue a Demand For Information. The announcement that the NRC knew about an earlier tritium incident. I can't possibly cover all of Wednesday's news in one post. I can't give the ultimate-big-picture context.

However, with Justice Marshall of the 1810 Supreme court as my guide, I plan a pleasant, almost courtly post, in which I will discuss the law, the vote, points of grammar, and definitions.

Actually, I plan to discuss legal challenges, politics, Entergy management and whistleblowers.

The Law

In an earlier post, I covered legal remedies that might be applicable to Vermont Yankee. Yesterday I spoke to two lawyers, who will remain off the record. I asked the first lawyer, who is anti-nuclear, to read my post and comment. He didn't think very highly of it, except for the possible importance of pre-emption. The second lawyer was pro-nuclear. This lawyer said that the case would probably turn on pre-emption. You heard it first here, friends. Pre-emption. Is the Vermont Senate attempting to pre-empt the NRC? I think so. Two lawyers agree. Stay tuned.

Other nuclear plants have been shut down, and some of them were quite unpopular at the time. However, those shutdowns followed very different scenarios. In some cases, the plant was off-line a lot and uneconomical. In other cases, the plant was required to make repairs and the owners considered the repairs too expensive. In other words, it was always the owner's decision to close down the plant. Yes, the antis celebrated in every case, but in the last analysis, it was the owner's economic decision that closed the plant.

With Vermont Yankee, we have a plant owner who wants to keep the plant operating, and a plant that has not been instructed to make expensive repairs. The legislature voted to shut it down? Keep that word in mind. Pre-emption.

The Vote

Well, the vote was just awful. Twenty-six to four. What can I say?

Still. The four votes in favor of the plant were two Democrats and two Republicans. If the vote is held again, nobody can assume a straight party-line split. I like that.

And even the vote wasn't all that clear. Some Senators voted against the plant partially due to the timing of the vote. The tritium leak and misleading statements hurt the plant's chances for approval. This stuff will be old news next year, but it is at the top of the agenda now. The New York Times reported about one senator who voted against the plant:

“If the board of directors and management of Entergy were thoroughly infiltrated by antinuclear activists, I do not think they could have done a better job of destroying their own case,” said one senator, Randolph D. Brock III, a St. Albans Republican who cast several votes friendly to the plant.

And so we have a nice little transition to my next section, about Entergy management.

Points of Grammar

Entergy suspended several employees as a consequence of the miscommunications. This report from the Rutland Herald claims that John Dreyfuss and Dave McElwee were among those suspended. Dreyfuss and McElwee were always in the forefront of testimony. I saw them testify at several hearings, and sometimes spoke to them. Full disclosure: McElwee and I also had several email conversations, particularly last November when we were both debating anti-nuclear activists. McElwee and Dreyfuss are not personal friends of mine. I have never joined either of them for a cup of coffee, a drink, a lunch. Just to make that clear. This section is about grammar and Entergy management, not anything personal about Dreyfuss and McElwee.

I think both men are both getting the short end of the stick. I believe Entergy did NOT have procedures in place for briefing them before they testified or answered the questions of review panels or activists.

In McElwee's case, my evidence is the famous email: "we consider this issue closed." I quote below from Arnie Gundersen's January 27, 2010 testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy:

From Entergy Legislative Liaison Dave McElwee to Gundersen, August 13, 2009

“As for your outstanding question on underground piping goes, Act 189 requested that an underground piping system carrying radionuclide’s be part of the inspection. Other than piping carrying gaseous material (with very low amounts of contamination and no median to contaminate the ground water which was the intent of this item from the legislature) we have none. Since this is not an item active in the review of CRA recommendations, we consider this issue closed.”

McElwee cc’d Jay Thayer on Entergy email

I have added emphasis on misspellings and wrong word use. The sentences are long and hard to follow. This is not an attempt to embarrass McElwee. I am merely pointing out that this was an important communication. This was a request that was referred to the plant by the Public Service Board, and it doesn't look like anyone reviewed the answer. It sounds like someone said: "Dave, just answer this, okay?" And he did the best he could.

If you deal with an intervenor or auditor or advisory body, management must set up a regular method to get statements reviewed. Management must support the people who are going to sign their names to the testimony. There have to be in-house procedures for communicating with auditors and review panels. There has to be management sign-off on the answers.

A similar story about John Dreyfuss. I had been to several hearings where James Moore of VPIRG castigated Entergy and the state for hiring Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) to monitor radiation at the plant boundary. When John Dreyfuss came to Norwich in November to debate Moore, he looked completely baffled by Moore's comments on ORAU. From where I sat in the audience, it looked like Dreyfuss had been thoroughly blindsided by an unexpected topic.

After the debate, I gave Dreyfuss a little background on the controversy, and he thanked me. But why me? I mean, if someone in your company is going to appear on a panel with an opponent who is very fond of a certain line of attack, wouldn't you brief your person first? Nobody briefed Dreyfuss on this. Another example of the managers simply not having their act together. The front line people just have to go out there, unsupported, and do their best.

In a post today, Rod Adams put the situation of the disciplined employees succinctly. They got "thrown under the bus."

Note: This critique is about Entergy relationships with regulators and Entergy communications. The tritium was no problem yesterday, and it is still no problem today. Tritium leaks are not indicative of bad management.


What is a whistleblower? In an earlier post, I note that Gundersen got an email from a whistleblower about an earlier tritium leak. However, that leak was totally within the plant boundaries, and reported to the NRC years ago. If you blow the whistle on something already reported to the NRC and fixed....are you a whistleblower? Should everything reported to the NRC be simultaneously reported to the press? I don't know. I am asking you, faithful readers, for your opinion.


Joffan said...

Rhetorical though it may be, I will answer your whistleblower question: Of course "revealing" information that is already public is not whistleblowing. A better term would be grandstanding (if the participant sought publicity) or political agitation (which seems appropriate in this case). A third option is that this was merely expressed as a concern (unfounded because already reported) that Gunderson has latched onto and exploited.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your earlier article:

This story was driven by half truths and hype on behalf of people hoping to line their pockets with the money of scared Vermont residents. Now it's a done deal, the rates will go up and the buffoon-managers will collect. Indeed, half truths are whole lies so the 26 to 4 vote doesn't surprise me. This is approximately the ratio of lies to truth at the state level of governance. The higher you get in media or government, the worse it gets. At the top, truth is scarcer than tritium... and its half life is even shorter...

Joffan said...

Whoa... I just read the whole of that poorly proof-checked fragment from McElwee, and guess what? He explicitly exlcuded gaseous lines. And the leaking line carried steam, which is, in fact, a gas.

Admittedly he then qualifies such piping as "with very low amounts of contamination" - where "very low" is undefined - but the fact that these were in a supposedly-protected pipe tunnel also agrees with his lack of medium claim.

Meredith Angwin said...

Joffan. Yes I know. One person asked me in an earlier blog why I didn't just accept that these guys were lying. Supposedly, that is the simplest, Occam's razor type explanation. I don't accept it because they weren't lying.

I also don't accept it because nuclear people are constantly accused of lying. For example, using Oak Ridge Associated Universities as a contractor was done to "deliberately deceive the people of Vermont that Oak Ridge National Laboratories was doing the work." Well, Oak Ridge Associated Universities is on site with the National Lab, and actually employs many people who work at the lab. National labs have all sorts of constraints about accepting private money to do work (for example, doing work for a utility.) Therefore, they have all sorts of ways of getting around these constraints. (Oak Ridge Associated Universities, for example, gets them around some constraints.) But I have heard testimony that this choice of vendor was a LIE.

Thank you for writing.