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.


Jason Ribeiro said...

Meredith, you make a very good point about miscommunication. Your story reminds me of another story I heard about a woman who wrote her husband a note to prepare her some top-ramen by 'breaking it up as little as possible' and then put it in the thermos. He followed the instructions and she opened her thermos to find a blob of noodles stuck in the thermos.

This type of foggy communication seems to be going in this case as well. Needless to say, people need to get the kind of perspective on the leak issue that you offer.

Robert Hargraves said...

What I don't understand is

"Is there underground piping or not?"

Meredith Angwin said...

Bob. There is underground piping. There is even underground piping that contains radionuclides. "Underground" just means "below grade level" so a pipe in a concrete holder, running along the floor of a building, is "underground" as I understand it. Assuming the floor of the building is somewhat below grade level, which would be common for buildings that have large water-tanks within them.

I am not Entergy, and I don't have all the information, but my understanding is that they don't have "buried" piping that carries radionuclides. "Buried" piping is in contact with the earth, piping you have to dig up. Again, I don't have all the information. It seems they were asked about "underground" but may have answered about "buried." Except that sometimes the people asking used "underground" and "buried" interchangeably.

In my next post, I ask the, why didn't anybody check the piping diagrams?

Anonymous said...

Good questions Meredith. Keep asking them. I would love to see an independent investigator analyze the communications between Entergy, the Department of Public Service, and the contractors who performed the comprehensive reliability assessment (it was not an ISA, that is a different thing.) Until we find out "what did they know, and when did they know it." it is unclear whether the total responsibility should lie with Entergy. DPS too has a vested interest in seeing the reactor relicensed, to serve the interest of their real clients, the Utility Companies. Did they tell the contractors to conceal the existence of underground pipes from the Legislature appointed Oversight Committee? Did they break any laws, along with the public trust, in so doing? Does the buck and the investigation stop with Entergy? Watch them squeak and wiggle--do they protest too much?