Sunday, February 28, 2010

Follow the Money

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) is the group that is always trying to get the PSB to find Vermont Yankee in violation of SOMETHING. My previous post described two of their attempts to get the Public Service Board to find against Vermont Yankee. One attempt was successful (investigate tritium) and one attempt was a dud (declare the docket tainted). The CLF keeps trying.

I just realized that they are not just doing this for their health. There's money on the table, too. CLF Ventures is "the non-profit affiliate of Conservation Law Foundation."
CLF Ventures gives CLF the chance to say "YES" to ground-breaking, market-based efforts to protect the environment.

And what, perchance, are they saying "YES" to? Their prime featured project is a 700 megawatt combined cycle gas-fired generating plant in New Hampshire. This plant came on-line in 2002, and I suspect it would make much more money if it didn't have to compete with cheap power from Vermont Yankee. Also, having done one successful project, CLF would probably like some more natural gas clients. Their description of this project seems to imply it is as green as grass, a "Super Clean Power Plant in New Hampshire." They don't describe it like something that involves a fossil fuel.

When a group goes to a lot of trouble to bring legal action, it's worth figuring out what they gain if they win. In this case, it's clear. By helping close Vermont Yankee, CLF would knock out a competitor and provide itself with future clients.

Update: October 7, 2010. CLF Ventures has moved its website, and I redid the link. My quotes on this blog post are from their former website.

The graphic of a natural gas processing plant is in the public domain (Wikimedia). Information about natural gas and radiation is posted today at Atomic Insights blog.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Old Tritium, New Problems

Good news. Closing in on the leak!

The good news is they are very close to finding the tritium leak. They think they have it, and they are testing their hypothesis this weekend. VPR has the news, the New York Times has a detailed description of the excavation, and the Vermont Department of Health, doing daily updates, feels they are close to the leak. Some quotes from Health Department updates:
At about 5:00 a.m. on Feb. 26, Vermont Yankee unearthed the concrete AOG pipe tunnel that carries the 2-inch drain line (labeled OGE-100-G1 Drain Line on the AOG Building schematic) at the point where the drain line connects to the AOG pipe tunnel. This revealed a substantial crack in the concrete and the PVC pipe that surrounds and carries the drain line into the tunnel...... "Leak testing" with pure demineralized water is scheduled for this weekend, Feb. 27 and Feb. 28, to help identify the actual mechanism and pathway more definitively.

This is very good news. VY is very close to finding the leak.

Bad News: Closing in on VY

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) has been against Vermont Yankee for quite a while, and has pressured the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) to take action to shut it down. As recently as the end of January, the PSB turned them down flat. In a Public Service Board Order dated January 29, the Public Service Board, the Board
- expressed concern with inaccurate information received from Vermont Yankee,
- but said it would wait for a Vermont-Yankee sponsored Root Cause Analysis to be completed before taking any action.
In that order, it stated that it would not treat the entire docket (about renewing the license) as tainted due to the inaccurate statements.
CLF asked that the Board require ENVY to show cause why all evidence and argument in this docket that is "affected by the false information" should not be stricken from the record. ENVY committed to evaluate and correct any information in the record related to the recent disclosure of the underground piping systems.
We decline, without prejudice, to issue the show-cause order requested by CLF at this time... given that ENVY will be reviewing the record to determine what, in its view, needs correction, it appears premature to issue at this time the show-cause order that CLF requests.

Okay, that seems clear enough considering that we are talking about the law here and only lawyers can really understand this stuff. The PSB will await the results of the ENVY (Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee) review before taking action.

On Thursday, the day after the vote, the PSB reversed itself. The PSB issued a new Order, beginning an investigation into whether or not Vermont Yankee should be shut down earlier than 2012. This one is harder for me to figure out, and I don't just mean the PSB's reasoning. I was not able to find the Order on the PSB website (apparently it hasn't been posted yet) but I found it on the CLF website. The PSB apparently started a new docket to do this, docket 7600 instead of 7440. I had to hunt around to find this stuff.

At any rate, the PSB is now looking into shutting the plant down early. Quoting from the new Order, the PSB states that:
With respect to federal preemption, it is clearly established that the Board would be preempted from attempting to regulate Vermont Yankee based on radiological safety. However, it is also well established that the Board retains significant authority in other areas of traditional state regulation. ...Accordingly, we conclude that we are not preempted from taking action in response to the leaks at Vermont Yankee, to the extent that the leaks may have economic and other non-radiological-health-and-safety consequences....

Dave Gram of the Associated Press covered this story, and my local paper headlined his article "Vt. Yankee's License Could Be In Jeopardy Sooner Than 2012." If you read to the end of this Order, you will see that the PSB plans to hold the first hearing on this docket on March 10. By that time, the leak will be history.

The Opinion

My opinion, that is. I believe the Public Service Board is jumping on the bash-Yankee bandwagon, and despite their use of the words colorable claim , they don't have much of a leg to stand on.

Tritium has few radiological health effects, a fact which I certainly have beaten to death in earlier posts. And if the PSB can't regulate based on radiological effects, what on earth CAN they regulate about tritium? I mean, tritiated water is slightly radioactive, but's just water.

The PSB Order mention of extra costs for decommissioning, but I doubt the NRC would let them shut down a power plant because of their perceptions of decommissioning costs. I actually don't understand why the PSB has done this, except to waste my tax money with hearings that will be quickly overthrown.

More about tritium.

Okay. Instead of personally explaining, once again, why tritium isn't much of a hazard, I am going to just put in some links.

John Wheeler, on putting Picos in Perspective.

Fox News points out that all those picocuries add up to a trillionth of a curie, while exit signs routinely contain thirty curies worth of tritium.

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.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Day After the Vote

It's the day before the vote, of course, but many of the Anti-VY screeds start "The day after Vermont Yankee is shut down." They go on to say that "nothing will happen, your lights won't go out" etc etc etc. Okay. Here we go.

The Day After The Vote against Vermont Yankee, nothing will happen. The PSB will have the same instructions (none) that it had the day before the vote. Vermont Yankee will continue to make power and track down the tritium leak. Nothing will change. Don't worry about it. There will be some parties in the anti-VY camp, of course.

Temporary parties, I hope. He who laughs last, laughs best.

A few days from now, I expect the whole business will move to the courts. I am not a lawyer, nobody has talked to me about this, and this is just my opinion. But I see three routes for challenges.

1) Even states can't break contracts

Two hundred years ago, the State of Georgia legislature decided that it had made a mistake in selling some land. Actually, the legislators had been bribed and let the land be sold for peanuts, even by 1800 standards. Well, no problem, they thought. No problem whatsoever. We'll just pass a law which wipes out that little mistake, and says the land was never sold. However, in 1810, the Supreme Court ruled they couldn't do that. A state legislature that makes a contract is obligated to stick to the contract. A later legislature can't wipe it out by a new law. The Fletcher Versus Peck case of the Marshall court is one of the cornerstones of American law.

Which brings us to Vermont Yankee. The sale of Vermont Yankee to Entergy, and the rules under which Vermont Yankee had to operate and sell power, were set out in a contract called the Memorandum of Understanding. It was a contract with the state, signed in 2002 by the Public Service Board of the State. It says nothing about legislative approval being necessary for continued operation of the plant.

In 2006, however, the state passed a law, Act 160, saying the Public Service Board could not approve nuclear plant operation without a confirming vote from the legislature. As I read it (and I am not a lawyer) this ex post facto changing of a contract could be challenged in court according to a precedent that has stood for 200 years. This is a precedent that stood because it deserves to stand. Who would buy or sell with a state if the next legislative session could declare the contract null and void, or put new, onerous terms into the contract?

2) The State may declare, but the NRC rules

In general, the NRC, not the state, decides whether a nuclear plant can continue operation. The state legislature may declare that it has authority, but the federal courts may not approve. Whether people like this or not, I think it is necessary. The FERC has some types of regulatory powers over hydro plants, and the NRC has powers over nuclear plants. There are cases where actual expertise is more important than local politics.

After Vermont Act 160 was passed, nothing happened, so there were no NRC or court challenges to this act. Now it will almost certainly be challenged, and we will see what happens.

And it wouldn't be the first time somebody wasted their money trying to regulate Vermont Yankee in inappropriate ways. As I said before, I am not a lawyer, but the Vermont Yankee versus Natural Resources Defense Council case of 1978 may well be relevant. The Supreme Court settled that case in Vermont Yankee's favor.

3) The Department of Public Service and the Public Service Board might just ignore Act 160

The legislature passed Act 160, but I don't see any Public Service Board signatures anywhere on the document.

The Department of Public Service and the Public Service Board may choose to continue with their charters as originally defined, and issue (or not issue) a Certificate of Public Good to VY according to their own rules and procedures. After all, these agencies are set up to be different from the legislature precisely because they are supposed to make judgments based on safety and economics and all that good stuff, not on politics. If they decide to just follow their charters, this would obviously throw the whole matter into the court system.

A little personal note here, with some history. There used to be a group, chaired by the PSB Commissioner O'Brien, called VSNAP, Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel. I went to several of the hearings VSNAP held about VY.

Some of the senators and representatives on that panel were not exactly polite to Mr. O'Brien. In one memorable hearing, a representative wrestled the microphone out of his hands several times. In another hearing, a senator prevented O'Brien from starting the published agenda, basically by out-shouting O'Brien. My impression was that these legislators were trying to make it clear that they had no respect for O'Brien or for the PSB.

That is just my opinion. I know, I know. You hadda have been there. VSNAP stopped meeting because the meetings were such an unmanageable circus. Everyone, even the shouting senator, will acknowledge that. As he said to me recently: "I guess I was a bad boy." (Time to re-read the book Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers?)

I don't think this was the best way for the legislators to win friends and influence people.

The worm may (or may not) turn at this point. The Public Service Board may just decide to ignore the legislature, just as the legislators disrespected the PSB. After all, PSB has a charter, and that is all it needs to issue a certificate.

Conclusion and an Appeal for Help

The day after the vote, nothing will happen.

This is my best guess, and I think the future will be interesting.

My appeal for help? I am not a lawyer, and I hope some lawyers will weigh in, comment, and make this a stronger post.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Sound and the Fury and Some News

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The Sound

Macbeth was talking about his life, but he could have been talking about the upcoming Vermont Yankee relicensing vote.

Yesterday, my local paper had a top-of-the front page article: Many Vt Senators in the Valley Say They'll Vote Aganist Vt Yankee The article was in the Valley News Friday February 19, and was written by John Gregg. In this article, Senator Mark MacDonald says
"I think we'll vote no, and I don't think it will be close." However, a few sentences later, the article says "MacDonald also said a no vote was not necessarily a 'stake in the heart' of Vermont Yankee's future, since a vote in favor of Vermont Yankee could still potentially occur in 2011 or 2012. The company might also still take the matter to court."

(This paper does not keep a strong archive on-line, and this link may go dead fairly quickly. I have quoted the important part.)

In other words, the upcoming vote is advisory. A "no" vote would certainly be a set-back for Entergy. If the split takes place completely along party lines, a 23 to 7 vote would be a major setback. But, despite all this excitement, the vote means very little. The legislature can chose to vote the opposite way next year. Or the whole matter can go to court instead of being voted upon.

By the way, as usual in politics, the vote situation is not intuitively obvious. The bill that will be voted on would instruct the Public Service Board (PSB) to allow Vermont Yankee to operate past 2012. If the Senate votes no, the House does not see the bill, and the PSB is not instructed to renew Vermont Yankee's license. So, if they vote "no"- -basically, nothing happens. The PSB is not instructed in any way, though a 2006 law, passed by the Vermont legislature, says PSB must be instructed by the legislature in order to rule that continued operation of Vermont Yankee is in the best interests of Vermont.

I think this is going to be settled in court, but that is another blog post entirely.

The Fury

Anti-Vermont Yankee efforts have been stepped up. For example, there have been ads and announcements in our local paper that the following event is taking place: (quoted from Valley News Calendar)

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, play reading and discussion by theater professionals and community leaders of the one-act play: 7 p.m., Montshire Museum of Science, 1 Montshire Road, Norwich. Free. Refreshments provided. 802-885-4826 or

In an ad for the performance, the title is "Should the (sic) Vermont Yankee be re-licensed."

I called the number, and discovered that this play is written by a Vermont woman and is being performed throughout Vermont, with "nuclear experts" in the audience. In speaking to Mr. Belenky on the phone, he assured me that these experts would have arguments that I would find "hard to counter." Unfortunately, I messed up the phone conversation by saying that I didn't really want to talk much about this, we wouldn't have much to say to each other, but I wanted to know more about the performances. This gave him the perfect opening to explain how everyone has to be open to dialog, and he never heard of someone saying something like this about a conversation etc.

This was my bad. It was completely my bad. I don't know why I am writing it here. Self-flagellation, I guess. Admission that I am suffering from a bit of burn-out. I do try to have a dialog. I really do. But a person can hear this junk about an RBMK reactor being just like a LWR reactor only so many times. I think I have heard it enough.

The charter of the Montshire Museum does not allow it to host political meetings. So I suppose this playreading about Chernobyl-and-Vermont-Yankee is considered educational.

Tomorrow afternoon, there's a big anti-VY meeting in Brattleboro, with a full cast of anti-VY groups. Here's the list from that announcement

Paul Gunter, executive director of the Washington, D.C., -based nuclear watchdog group, Beyond Nuclear;
David Dean, Vermont State Representative and Riverkeeper for the Connecticut River Watershed Council;
Clifford Hatch, organic farmer in Gill, Mass.;
Dr. Ira Helfand, co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility;
Deborah Katz, executive director of Citizens Awareness Network;
Clay Turnbull, staff member of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution; and
Chris Williams, organizer, Vermont Citizen Action Network.

Chris Williams used to be with Citizens Awareness Network. I think the Vermont Citizen Action Network is relatively new. Some of the Usual Suspects are not attending the rally tomorrow. VPIRG and the Union of Concerned Scientists seem to be missing. We face quite a crew around here.

And they are well-funded. There was a half-page, full color ad opposite the opinion page in our local paper, with the usual cooling tower picture and exhortations to write your legislature. I am sure this ad appeared in all local Vermont newspapers. Meanwhile, in electronic media, anything with the word nuclear triggers a Google Adsense ad to shut Vermont Yankee. I see this on most of the pro-nuclear blogs I read.

We are such a small state. 700,000 people, and not growing. Where does all this money come from?

Old News Or New?

Arnie Gundersen wrote a note about a phone call from an anonymous whistle blower claiming that Vermont Yankee repaired a leak in the same area two years ago. Vermont Digger has the story. I link to the document obtained from the Department of Public Service. This story will be heavily covered in future days, no doubt. We have faith that Mr. Gundersen is not being devious or dumb in sharing his report of the phone call.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Smiling Sharks at the State House

A guest post by Howard Shaffer III. He reports on a visit to the Vermont Law School and several visits to the Vermont State House where (surprise surprise) the people who are asked to testify are devoted to closing Vermont Yankee.


Late January events

On January 27th, the Joint Natural Resources and Energy Committees (House and Senate committees) met to hear testimony . The Vermont Energy Education office was the first one to present their information. The Energy Education mission is to look at all sources of energy, and to teach about advantages and disadvantages. Though there are many forms of energy used in this country (for heat, transportation, etc) the presenters only talked about electric power; how it is generated and how it can be conserved. Oddly, they never mentioned steam power generation of any kind. They spoke only of wind and solar.

The next speakers were Beyond Nuclear speakers Kevin Kamps, and Lorriane Rekmans. The announcement describes Ms. Rekmans as follows:

Lorraine Rekmans grew up in the Serpent River First Nation community from Elliot Lake, Ontario. Her community has experienced increased cancers, and devastating environmental damage from exposure as a result of uranium mining.

In Montpelier, Rekmans tried to persuade us that bad uranium mining practices in Canada fifty years ago, adversely affecting indigenous peoples, are somehow a fault of Vermont Yankee. Also, shutting down the plant will correct these mining practices. Or else it was an emotional ploy. I heard Mr. Kamps again, this time with Paul Gunter, the next night in Norwich at a Sierra Club meeting.

Still in Montpelier, though, after the Joint hearing, I briefly attended a Senate Finance Committee hearing where the Department of Public Service reviewed all the issues under consideration. VY was not mentioned. I moved on to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee where the Gundersens were describing the trail of submissions related to VY's underground piping. The conclusion was the Legislature was misled.

The committee recessed to attend the governor's press conference, where Governor Douglas said VY had lost the trust of the people over the buried piping issue. The Committee then reconvened to hear the rest of the testimony, and do a Q&A. It wasn't pretty. The Chair, Rep. Klein said he is an anti nuke. (No surprise there, since an article containing some biography said he was raised near Indian Point and his parents were suspicious of nuclear.) H He also said that the Legislature is doing the regulator's job (emphasis added) and once a vote is taken the Legislature will be out of the loop.

Early February

On the evening of February 9, there was a meeting about Vermont Yankee at Vermont Law School. The Gundersens were on a panel with Jim Moore of VPIRG and Prof. Don Kreis of the Law School. Mr. Moore had been asked to review some of the Vermont Legislative history of VY and he reviewed it.

The Gundersens discussed the situation at VY and also made a remark that made the NRC sound special and not subject to Congressional oversight. I questioned that. In response to my question about the NRC being like the other regualatory agencies, Mrs. G. said that the Commissioners were in the pocket of the industry.

Prof. Kreis reviewed more of the legal history. During the Q&A he criticized Mrs. G. for disparaging the NRC Commissioner's integrity. He said such smearing is not helpful to the process, having been a Regulator himself.

As part of the legal history review of the VY situation, Prof Kreis said that it is an OPEN QUESTION whether or not the Vermont Legislature can do what is being attempted - block VY's consideration by the Public Service Board for an extension to its Certificate of Public Good., thus keeping the plant from continuing to operate beyond the end of the current certificate, which expires on the same day as the current NRC license. In conversation with him after the program, I raised the issue of the famous Supreme Court case under Justice Marshall in 1810. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that a following Legislature can't pass a law negating contracts with the State which were approved by a preceding Legislature. He said the Law School has a contract with the Legislature to provide advice on these matters, and could not say more. I said I understood. The moderator of the Q&A period, Prof Mears said all the lawyers expect the VY issue to wind up in court.

On February 10, I was back in Montpelier for a session of the the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. They had chosen to have Mr. Ray Shadis, a well-known antinuclear activist testify by phone on the nuclear fuel cycle. I learned that all mining problems are a reason to shut down VY and that thorium is fissionable!!

Next on the agenda was a Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee hearing. I have attended many different committee hearings over the past years while tracking and learning about the Vermont Yankee and energy issues. This hearing was moved from the committee's small room to a larger hearing room. On deck were Arnie and Maggie Gundersen to enlighten all about the VY situation. WCAX-TV was set up to tape the entire testimony, which was linked to a Burlington Free Press article that day. See an earlier post on this blog to watch the testimony. Better than that, read a good review of the testimony at Is Arnie Gundersen Devious or Dumb.

Before the hearing on February 10 with the Gundersens, I spoke to one of VY's Lobbyists, from a Montpelier firm. I said it looked to me like sharks circling in the water, but he has probably seen it before. He said yes, but never this bad. The sharks were smiling too.

The Vote is Coming

I have been working up a post about lying, and another post about organically bound tritium. But these posts are being pre-empted by Peter Shumlin, President Pro Tem of the Vermont Senate, who has set the Senate vote about Vermont Yankee license extenstion for next week. It is generally agreed that Shumlin is doing this as part of his campaign for Governor of Vermont.

An article about the vote was published in the Burlington Free Press this morning, and already has 37 on-line comments (as I post this). The author, Terri Hallenback, has the politics right. Even senators who oppose VY feel forced prematurely into the vote.

Meanwhile, utilities are scrambling for replacement power. The power they have mostly announced is wind. They plan to buy 55% of the output from a 99 MW wind farm. This sounds like 54 MW, but the capacity factor for wind is about 0.30. So neglecting the non-dispatchable nature of wind, that would be only 16 MW of base-load equivalent.

As you might expect, the majority of the power they are purchasing, 45 MW of baseload at this point, is from the mostly-fossil holdings of the great Wall Street Giants that hold portfolios of power plants. Articles about Vermont power contracts name suppliers as J.P. Morgan Ventures Energy, an energy trading company that bought parts of Sempra Energy yesterday (Sempra has natural gas holdings) Merrill Lynch Commodities Group and Morgan Stanley. All these groups are in the energy trading business, as far as I can tell, not the energy producing business. Yesterday, J P Morgan and Morgan Stanley were involved (partners?) in the Sempra acquisition. As the Financial Times notes, J P Morgan has built its energy portfolio in a flurry of acquisitions over the last two years.

Apparently the good people of Vermont would rather deal with international banks and holding companies than with Entergy. Do they expect these groups of companies to be responsive to Vermont's needs? I suppose hope springs eternal. Perhaps some good Senators believe that banks won't lie to us, but Entergy does. Perhaps the good Senators need to read about two years worth of newspapers.

How would the closing of Vermont Yankee affect Vermont? This is a big topic. I want to comment on one aspect that I believe affects the politics of it all, and it is painful even to write about it. Social stratification. Rigid class structure.

When I moved here from California, one of my issues with moving East was the existence of more social stratification, especially in New England. California is such a state of immigrants, such a polyglot state. Class structure certainly exists in California, but is mixed up with lots of other demographic trends, and never felt dominant.

This VPR article about two cultures and Vermont Yankee skirts the issue, but is the closest thing I have seen to acknowledging it. The Murphys talk about the history of their fear and the Merkles talk about being close to their families, volunteering, and their jobs. The Murphys say they "feel" for the people who will lose their jobs when the plant closes, while simultaneously saying that most people won't lose their jobs. The Merkles feel unwelcome and are sure that when the plant closes, they will have to leave the area.

It's worth reading the article and looking at the pictures. Maybe I am reading class structure into the picture. Leave comments on this post and let me know.

To end on a more upbeat note. The vote is unlikely to be the end of the story, and I plan to continue blogging while all of these situations play themselves out. Besides, I have two more posts partially written.

It's not over till it's over, and it's not over yet.

And this post isn't even over yet! I just found this short article and news clip from WPTZ in the Champlain Valley which puts the vote in some perspective. The legislature can vote now, can reverse itself next year, can get itself sued. This vote is sheer political grandstanding by Shumlin. The prestigious local blog, Vermont Tiger, comes to the same conclusion with a guest blog by the publisher of the St. Albans Messenger.

As I said above. It's not over till it's over, and it's not over yet.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Welcome and thanks

First, I would like to welcome a new Nuclear Blogger, and thank her or him for the shoutout.

Welcome, DY at Nuclear Today and Nuclear for the Future and thanks for mentioning this blog.

And thanks to Dan Yurman for an excellent post describing the Entergy issues at Indian Point and Vermont Yankee in historical perspective.

And finally, thanks to John Wheeler for a thoughtful description of what a small quantity a "pico" is. Great quote from John:

Said another way; if I had an olympic swimming pool full of pure water and I sprinkled in 0.0003 grams of tritium (less than the mass of one drop of water), then mixed it up, I would have a mixture containing 1,000,000 picocuries of tritium per liter.

We all appreciate the mutual support of our fellow bloggers. Thank you all.

A short video from Burlington Free Press about the search for the source of tritium at Vermont Yankee. Including some ice fishing on the Connecticut River within sight of the plant.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Biff! Bam!! Pow!!! And Food for Thought

I have been too busy to blog recently, and I fear that may look like I am dodging the tritium issue. From my point of view, there is nothing substantially new on tritium. Various governors and so forth are calling for further oversight and investigations, Vermont Yankee continues to dig and monitor wells, NRC says it is no big deal. (I agree with NRC. See my lengthy posts on tritium and health, tritium and kale, etc etc etc.) In other words: same-old, same-old.

However, in the interest of keeping the blog fresh, I want to share two things. Both inflammatory. So my readers can have some fun. Quote without comment. I hope to comment tomorrow.

The first thing I want to share is some testimony by Arnie and Maggie Gundersen on the tritium issue. In this testimony, Arnie Gundersen concludes that Vermont Yankee is either "devious or dumb" and comes within a hairsbreadth of accusing twelve people at VY of lying. I can't find a transcript of this, but I do have this one-hour video from Burlington Free Press, and I embed it here. The part about devious or dumb is near the end.

Watch live streaming video from bfp_news at

Now, as Rod Adams notes in his blog about devious and dumb: "Dem's fighting words!" So here's Rod's blog on the subject.

Is Arnie Gundersen Devious or Dumb? (Or is He Simply a Professional Fear-Monger?)

I think my nuclear friends outside of Vermont may have seen Rod's blog but not Gundersen's testimony. My Vermont friends may have seen Gundersen's testimony but not all of them will have seen Rod's response. (By the way, the comments on Rod's post are also worth reading).

So I'm not taking the lazy way out about blogging today. I'm building bridges.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

All Around the Coal Boiler

I almost always blog about Vermont Yankee, but today I am taking a break from nuclear and its issues. Today is about coal.

This afternoon was the culmination of the coal course I gave. We finished the class work last week, and today we visited Public Service of New Hampshire Merrimack Station, near Bow, New Hampshire. It was a beautiful winter day, and the PSNH people were great. The huge scrubber construction project means parking space at the plant is at a premium, so we left our cars at the Park and Ride and PSNH picked us up in two vans.

PSNH was very well set up for the tour. Within the plant, we wore ear protection. Next to points of interest, PSNH had a diagram set up on an easel. The guide would point to parts of the diagram and then to parts of the plant. It was very easy to understand what we were seeing. I have taken tours of nuclear plants, and never seen anything so thoughtful, cheap and effective. The plant was gritty compared to a nuclear plant, but not nearly as dirty as I expected it to be. The plant was surprisingly clean, actually.

The plant has two cyclone fired boilers. I didn't know that these types of boilers are designed to make very little fly ash, and lots of molten slag. The plant doesn't need ash ponds, but instead has relatively small ash hoppers. The slag was beautiful. I loved looking through a port to see streamers of molten slag flow into the quenching water. Strands and streamers of dark glassy material and lighter glassy material, flowed into water, backed by an orange glow.

All the slag is ground coarsely and sold as roofing material. The small amount of ash is sold as an additive for concrete. It's nice to see a coal plant so well run, with all the byproducts made into something useful.

We also looked though welders glasses into a port at the fire box. I didn't enjoy that as much, perhaps because I had seen similar things back-in-the-day when I worked on NOx control at Acurex (now part of A D Little consulting).

We saw the anhydrous ammonia tanks for Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) of NOx. Merrimack was one of the first plants to use SCR. We also saw the huge sulfur-and-mercury scrubber under construction. The cost of the scrubber is close to $500 million dollars, and building it has been very controversial. On the other hand, the influential Granite Geek blog just posted that the scrubber looks like a good choice in the current political climate.

One thing I had not realized was that this boiler was designed in the 60s for a certain type of coal. That's the kind of coal it can burn. They can buy this type of coal from three places in Appalachia, or from Venezuela or Europe. They buy from Appalachia and Venezuela. They have to check every train to understand the properties of the coal, and they do a fair amount of coal blending. The idea that we import coal from Venezuela to New Hampshire was strange to me, and PSNH tries to avoid importing coal. But boilers are designed for coal of a certain level of heat content, ash content, sulfur content, water content. They can get this type of coal from only certain places.

I was very impressed with the plant and the courtesy and professionalism of the people who work there. I was also impressed with being able to walk right in to the control room and stand around. They told us: don't push any buttons, they all work! But we were allowed in. Again, different from a nuke plant.

I also will take a small amount of credit for the success of the trip. My course introduced people to basic coal and pollution control technology, so everyone was able to understand what they were seeing. We all had a good time.

I include my course plan here. I leave out the names of my guest speakers, since I haven't asked them if they wanted to be on my blog.

All Around the Coal Boiler
ILEAD Winter, 2010
Meredith Angwin

First Session Thursday January 14
• Introduction
• Thermodynamics of Heat Engines
• Types of Coal
• Ordinary Types of Coal Boilers: Stoker, Tangential, Cyclone
• Fancy combustion: Supercritical, IGCC, Gasification
Second Session Thursday January 21
• Particulate and particulate control methods
• SOx and control methods
• Guest presentation: Advanced control methods: Cleaner Power Without Scrubbing.
• Participant report on particulate control history (2.5 microns)
Third Session, Thursday January 28
• NOx Control methods, past present and future
• Mercury control
• Guest presentation: Representative of Northeast Utilities (NU) on the scrubber at the Merrimack plant
• Participant report on mercury controversies
Fourth Session, Thursday February 4
• Earth and Water: The slurry and ash ponds
• Recycling coal ash and sulfur
• Guest presentation: Coal ash and recycling
• Participant report on ash pond disaster at TVA
Fifth Session, Thursday February 11, field trip to the Merrimack Coal Plant
Participant Reports
Participant reports cover historical topics (the history of regulation or an incident or technology). Each report is ten minutes long, with five minutes for questions. Participants do not need a technical background in order to prepare a report.

Reports are:
Second session, January 21:
• History of particulate control controversies (2.5 microns)
Third session: January 28:
• History of mercury emission controversies
Fourth session:
• The ash pond disaster at TVA and its implications

We will discuss other possible reports during the first class session.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tritium Summary

I have done several posts on tritium in the past few days. Some are quite long. So here's an executive summary

In Tritium Is Three, I pointed out the three important questions about the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee
1) Is the tritium a danger to public health?
2) Does the existence of a tritium leak prove that the plant is badly managed?
3) Did Entergy lie about its underground piping?

The next two posts, Tritium and Health and Tritium, Oil and Kale answer the first question about health. Tritium is not dangerous at the levels found in the test wells. These posts compare the radiation levels to bananas and kale, and compare the spill levels to recent oil spills.

The next post, Tritium and Plant Management, answers the second question. The existence of a tritiium leak proves nothing about plant management. Tritium leaks have been found at many plants, and Vermont Yankee has taken all appropriate steps (test well, inspections, informing regulators and NRC) to handle the leak.

The next two posts answer the third question: Did Entergy lie about its underground piping? These are long posts containing many quotes.

In Miscommunication? I point out that the different groups have different definitions of underground and buried, the terms were used interchangeably in many cases, and there was plenty of room for honest misunderstandings.

In the final post, Piping and Misinformation, I ask a simple question: in all this testimony, why did nobody refer to a piping diagram? The regulators may have had such diagrams, but not looked at them. Or the regulators didn't request such diagrams. In either case, the regulators, as well as Entergy, has serious egg on its face. Referral to such diagrams could have put a complete end to any misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Piping and Misinformation

Did people at Entergy lie under oath and deliberately mislead regulators? (The third of the three tritium questions.)

A long post on an important subject.

In my previous post, I made a case for honest communication errors as the source of the "misinformation" that Entergy provided the regulators. I pointed out the lax use of the terms underground and buried in testimony, and described how it could have affected the questions and answers. Not everyone will agree with my conclusion. The anti-Vermont Yankee explanation would still be an unqualified "They lied!!" Anti-s would say that the plant had a motivation for lying: They claim that if Entergy admitted to underground pipes carrying radioactive material, regulators would expect clean-up to be more expensive, and they would require Entergy to put more money in the decommissioning fund.

I have stated my opinion that the plant representatives didn't lie, but rather that there were serious miscommunications about terminology. I am sure I can't convince everyone, but I have convinced myself. But there is still more.

Something is missing. Something big is missing. Nobody is covered with roses in this story, true enough. But, to be blunt about it, there's a whole lot of missing information and I think some of it is missing testimony.

As I noted in my previous post, The Times Argus put together a timeline. This timeline covered questions asked and answers received. Most of the timeline is taken from Arnie Gundersen's testimony on January 27 before the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. Gundersen's testimony is public record and Gundersen was kind enough to send an electronic copy to Howard Shaffer, who forwarded it to me.

Some examples of missing information.

In May, as described before, Jay Thayer answered a question about underground piping by saying he would get back to the regulators. He did not get back to the regulators. He didn't follow up. (He should have followed up.)

Neither did the regulators. They never asked him again, as far as I know. (They should have followed up.)

Another example, On July 24, 2009, Gundersen wrote an email to Public Service Board Commissioner O'Brien. In the email, Gundersen asks:

“Could you please ask ENVY to confirm in writing the following SPECIFIC question: "Is there underground piping that carries radioactivity at VY?" If, for some reason, the POP misunderstood NSA and ENVY and there is, in fact, underground piping that carries radioactivity, I would like ENVY to list those underground pipes it is aware of that may contain radioactivity.
(emphasis in the original)

After a certain amount of to-and-fro (this question isn't for the Public Service Board, it should be answered directly by the plant, etc.) Entergy answered, according to Gundersen's testimony.

On August 13, 2009, Entergy Legislative Liaison Dave McElwee emailed Gundersen:

“As for your outstanding question on underground piping goes,....we have none. Since this is not an item active in the review of CRA recommendations, we consider this issue closed.”

Okay. In May, Jay Thayer said he didn't think the plant had that sort of piping, and he would get back to the regulators. Later, in August, Gundersen asked about underground piping and Entergy answered "We haven't got any." Apparently that was the end of that exchange, also. (A month later Gundersen did ask about the storm drains at the plant.)

I find these exchanges mystifying. When you ask a question, the person answering it may understand the question, mis-understand the question, answer the question truthfully, or lie. All these are possibilities in all human exchanges. If Entergy didn't understand the questions, or if Entergy was lying, the various committees of the legislature had an obligation to find out the truth.

And what happened? They didn't bother, as far as I can tell.

A huge portion of this story is missing. In all this testimony, nobody asks for the piping drawings. People send emails or ask questions: "Do you have such piping?" They get answers: "Nope." Nobody ever asks to see a diagram.

Yet there was an ISA (Independent Safety Assessment), with engineers on the staff. If the people doing that assessment had asked Entergy for a piping diagram and been refused, such a refusal would have been reported in every newspaper in Vermont. ( Maybe every newspaper in the country.) All large industrial facilities have piping diagrams. Any facility regulated by the NRC has a piping diagram. Oversight panels must have been able to ask for and receive these diagrams.

That is the testimony that has not yet been reported. The testimony where they examine the piping diagrams.

The oversight committees seem to be playing games. The question is always: "Do you have such pipes, cross your heart and hope to die?" The question is never: "Thank you, sir. You say you don't have such piping. Can you show us the piping diagrams to confirm this statement?" The question is never: "On examining your piping diagrams, sir, I must disagree with your answer here. I see this, this, and this. The pipes I have indicated are pipes that must be examined."

To me, the exchanges that have been reported to date are like something out of Alice in Wonderland, not an engineering inquiry. Engineering inquiries don't stop at "no we don't" answers when such answers can be verified. Engineering is about verification and drawings and blueprints and pipe diagrams and piping and instrumentation diagrams and...All that stuff.

My feeling is that people in the various state oversight committees and panels, did have access to these diagrams. I simply cannot believe that they did not request and receive complete piping diagrams. The regulators have major egg on their faces for not referring to the diagrams.

Don't get me wrong. Entergy has major egg on its face for its answers. There is no question about that. I think the problem was miscommunication (in which case Entergy should have tried harder to clarify the question). Others may think the issue was outright lying under oath.

Either way, the piping diagrams showed these pipes.

It is self-serving of the regulators to cry "they didn't tell us the truth" when the truth was visible in piping diagrams that had been submitted to their offices. If the regulators and panels didn't request piping diagrams for the whole plant, then we need a more competent group of regulators and panelists, in my opinion. Indeed, if the regulators and panels didn't request the information, or if they didn't examine the information they had requested, there is plenty of egg-on-the-face to go around.

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?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tritium and Plant Management

As I noted in an earlier post, there are three questions about tritium. I repeat the questions here.
1) Are the amounts that are leaking dangerous to health?
2) Does the leak show that Vermont Yankee is being managed badly or is perhaps too old to be run properly?
3) Did Vermont Yankee staff lie about pipes and tanks that could contain tritium?

To dispose of the first question rather quickly. Two of my blog posts answered this question. I repeat the answer here. The tritium levels in the test wells are not dangerous. When I compared the levels of beta exposure from tritium to levels of beta exposure from various types of food, I determined that it was more dangerous to eat a banana than to drink the well-water. The Keene Sentinel, alone among newspapers, has also figured this out. I tried to document this lack of danger well enough to convince a person who has an open mind on the subject. A person who hates nuclear will never be convinced.

For links to many opinions of tritium, I recommend this recent post at Pro-Nuclear Democrats.

The second question. What does the tritium leak show? Does it mean that Vermont Yankee is too old, or perhaps it has terrible management, and that is why it has a tritium leak?

This question is answered in a newspaper article, but one that is not at all friendly to the nuclear industry. Dave Gram of AP notes that Vermont Yankee is one of almost thirty plants that have developed tritium leaks. Most plants, including VY, have test wells to monitor for tritium release.

You can read this article one of two ways. The anti-nuke way is, of course, "OMG, they all have leaks, we have to shut them all down!" (But they would have said this anyway, with or without the tritium.)

A more reasonable approach is that tritium leakage is a problem that arose in the 90s, and monitoring has been stepped up since around 2005. Test wells have been installed at many power plants to detect any discharge of tritium. Like twenty-six other plants, Vermont Yankee's test well detected a tritiated water release. Almost all the plants that have leaks have found the problems and corrected them. (In some cases, plants have had difficulties finding the source.)

Meanwhile, Vermont Yankee is doing all the right things. VY has been drilling more test wells, inspecting buildings and trenches, keeping in touch with the NRC and state regulators. There is nothing about this situation that shows bad management or that the plant is in terrible shape. There is nothing about these leaks that makes them particularly dangerous. This problem has occurred at other plants, been solved at other plants, and will be solved at Vermont Yankee as well.

But finally, we come to the big question. Question Three. Did Vermont Yankee staff lie to regulators about pipes and tanks that could release tritium? I will address that question in another blog post.