Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tritium Again

What can I say. Vermont Yankee is making it hard for people who defend it. I still consider Vermont Yankee to be a good plant, and worth relicensing, but this tritium leak is troubling. Governor Douglas is talking about "breach of trust." Public Service Board Commissioner O'Brien practically called the company a bunch of liars. The Burlington Free Press reported:
O'Brien said he didn't see how the misinformation could be described as miscommunication. "What they clearly communicated to us is not true," he said. "There was not a miscommunication here."

So, were the potluck people right? Did Entergy lie to us?

The potluck people were expressing both the facts (Entergy said there were no underground pipes carrying tritium) and their belief system (nuclear people tell lies all the time, you can count on them to lie to us again).

I will start by expressing my own belief system. Something went wrong, and it was pretty big, but the engineers did not lie under oath.

I can't prove that, of course, but it is what I believe. Starting from there, what explanation do I have for all this? Two possibilities.

First possibility is that the spokespeople were asked ambiguous questions. It has been reported that Entergy said one thing to one group of regulators and another thing to a different group. This could happen very easily if the two groups asked slightly different questions.

Engineers tend to give very specific answers. Sometimes they take the time to spend half an hour helping you qualify your question, and sometimes they just answer it. The latter is dangerous because they are making a set of assumptions about your question, and those assumptions may not have much to do with what you asked. And a few months later, with a different group, they may make a different set of assumptions, due to a slightly different question.

That's a "communications" possibility.

My second possibility is more technical. I decided to look at other plants that had tritium leaks. Specifically, I read about Oyster Creek. In late August, Oyster Creek discovered that it had a tritium leak from a pipe within the condenser building. This was not an underground pipe. Tritium was leaking through through the concrete walls of the building.
The preliminary report from the NRC suggests the leakage is passing through the condenser building wall, which is about 4 feet thick. Staff at Oyster Creek have excavated around the wall and found leakage coming from that area. This suggests that the leak is located inside the wall, Sheehan said.
The aluminum pipe is surrounded by a sleeve, so plant personnel would be able to make repairs to the pipe without excavating the wall, according to Sheehan.

If Entergy was asked about tritium leaks before August of this year, they would not have had this information about Oyster Creek. They would only have been looking at heavy-duty, water-carrying underground piping as a possible source of tritium. It is quite possible that the Vermont Yankee tritium leak also has nothing to do with underground piping. I don't know.

I hope they find the leak soon. In this hope, pro-Vermont Yankee and anti-Vermont Yankee people are united.


DV8 2XL said...

Meredith, I don't see an e-mail for you listed on the page so I'll put this here, feel free to remove it as off topic.

As I mentioned before Hydro-Québec is about to purchase Énergie NB Power, (New Brunswick Power)and that this had drawn some concern in several New England States that purchase electricity from the two Canadian companies. I also mentioned that the possible loss of VT had been a factor in these concerns as well.

Apparently a great deal of pressure was applied to the governments of both Provinces, (who own the power companies in question) and the deal was renegotiated, specifically leaving distribution and transmission to New England in the hands of Énergie NB Power, while selling all generation to Hydro-Québec.

While this looks like a good thing for the external customers of these power companies, the fact is that Hydro-Québec will not not be investing in new transmission from New Brunswick, which had been part of the original deal, meaning that there might very well be less available capacity to serve the New England grid if shortfalls from the closing of VY need to be made up in the short term.

It just goes to show that what looks to be a local fight can have international ramifications.

Meredith Angwin said...


Thank you for your comment.

Last November, I went to a meeting in Norwich Vermont on the future of Vermont Yankee. At that meeting, Dave Lamont of the Vermont Public Service Commission stated that the tie-line from Canada down to Vermont was operating at top capacity. He said that we couldn't increase the total energy sent down that line (unless it was reconstructed and upgraded, I suppose).

In other words, people in Vermont are going to get the same amount of power, or less, from HQ in the future. We are certainly not getting more.

As a person who lives in Vermont, I foresee that if we shut down VY, the only place willing to sell us low-carbon power will be HQ. By shutting down our own plant, we will have destroyed our ability to negotiate with HQ for a decent rate.

Countries in Europe who have shut down their nuclear plants have found themselves in energy thrall to Russia and other former Soviet states. We may find ourselves in the same position with Canada. Of course, since America and Canada have a long and peaceful history, the consequences would be economic rather than geopolitical.

DV8 2XL said...

There has always been a certain co-dependency between Canada and the U.S. across several domains and in general it has evened out to mutual advantage. As I said previously, my concern is that a situation is developing where the consumers in the New England States and two Provinces are going to have their pockets picked by the situation that will arise by the loss of VY.

While Vermont may not get any more power down the QC-VT tie-line, power will be wheeled in via other States from Canada. Worse, (from my perspective) is that Hydro-Québec will go to Québec City to fund more capacity south, and guess who will foot the bill. This is more likely now, in my opinion, since the southern tie-lines of Énergie NB Power are not going to fall into Hydro-Québec's hands.