Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Howard Shaffer Testimony to VSNAP: Perspective on Vermont Yankee Errors

Errors at Vermont Yankee Reported to the NRC

Recently, Vermont Yankee announced that it had reported two personnel errors to the NRC. The first error occurred during the refueling outage in October. A worker flipped a circuit breaker on the shut-down cooling system, causing the water temperature to rise briefly and an alarm to sound. The plant was off-line at the time. The second error, in December, was taking both of the plants diesel generators out of service at the same time. This error (the generators were not in use) lasted for about 2 minutes before the mistake was noticed and corrected. As the NRC spokesman noted: Vermont Yankee has other backup systems as well (as the generators), including batteries and a tie to a nearby hydroelectric plant.

Naturally, the opponents have commented. In the Rutland Herald, Ray Shadis was quoted: “They were Homer Simpson moments...The two screw-ups are part of a continuum of ongoing, goofy, inexplicable stuff”. Shadis further noted that he expected the next three months to be the most dangerous in the plant's forty years of operation. In the same article, Arnie Gundersen said that the Public Oversight Panel (he was a member) identified similar issues three years ago.

Yesterday, the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel (VSNAP) met in Vernon, Vermont. The mission of this panel has never been clear to me. According the VSNAP web page, it "considers issues" and writes an annual report to the governor and the legislature. At VSNAP meetings, most of the meeting time is spent on public comments. Vermont Yankee opponents generally show up in force. One of the public comments about the plant was from George Harvey, as reported in the Brattleboro Reformer. "These people have a history of lying....They’re clearly operating out of self-interest. They’re not interested in our making informed decisions, they’re only interested in making money."

Neither Howard Shaffer nor I could attend the VSNAP meeting, due to other obligations. However, Howard sent VSNAP the testimony below, which I am very happy to share.

Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel

From: Howard Shaffer PE (nuclear) Vermont, NH, MA, IL
Startup Engineer and Support Engineer for Vermont Yankee

The two personnel errors at VY open the discussion to consideration of the initial design of the whole nuclear power program, and all our technologies.

In all my Navy Nuclear power and submarine training it was emphasized that the greatest care is required. You must communicate and double check before taking action. Yet it is acknowledged, and proven by experience, that people make mistakes. Therefore, designs must include backups and consideration of "what ifs."

Nuclear Power Plant Design

In nuclear reactor plant design, of all types, it seems to have been considered that there will be failures of hardware, and people. People include Operators, Managers, and Regulators. In addition, it was believed that in spite of all design, training, and precautions, some day, somewhere, a reactor core would be damaged and melt. The radioactive products were assumed to get out of the vessel and piping. Therefore, a backup was needed. It is the Containment. I call it the "garbage can over the tea kettle." It worked at Three Mile Island. At Fukushima the containments worked for a while, until the lack of cooling for the fuel caused melting and releases. It has been forgotten by the media that the Japanese government ordered an evacuation on the first day of the event, long before releases began.

We, the world nuclear power community, have organizations to communicate lessons learned, in addition to the regulatory agencies. These organizations are the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations in the US, and the World Association of Nuclear Operators. Airplane regulators communicate world wide too.

Human Interaction

Comparing nuclear power to perfection is a political ploy. What in human endeavor is perfect? Try comparing airplanes and cars to perfection. The certainty of error is no excuse. Every accident is investigated and lessons learned incorporated. This is true of the flooding after hurricane Irene, the fire in downtown Brattleboro, house fires, plane and train crashes, car accidents, and nuclear power plant accidents and errors. If you are against something politically, compare it to perfection, and demand zero errors.

In my Navy nuclear power training, I had to read the book containing reports of all the errors that had happened to date. By then, 1963, the book was thick. As years went by, the book got too thick to manage. Errors were being repeated. The book was replaced with a manageable volume of the "classic errors." Why were errors repeated? Errors are repeated in spit of all efforts, because people are human. There are always new people, people changing jobs, rules changes, design changes, and time and other pressures.

NRC licensees are required to have a formal program to document, report, investigate, learn from, and take corrective action on, Human Errors. It is always appropriate to ask if any events constitute a pattern.


The nuclear power program, and Vermont Yankee, should be compared to the available alternatives. On this basis, using the measures the EPA uses: deaths, injuries, accidents, and environmental degradation, it appears that in the 1950's Congress made a very wise decision in choosing nuclear power as a replacement for coal.


In a recent press release on the Cross Border Air Pollution Regulations, the EPA stated that:

Pollution from Coal Burning is responsible EVERY YEAR for

34, 000 early deaths due to asthma
$280 billion in health costs
15,000 non fatal heart attacks
19,000 acute bronchitis cases
400,000 cases of aggravated asthma
1.8 million sick days


Martin Langeveld said...

"It has been forgotten by the media that..."

Why is that gratuitous stab at the media necessary? Where's the backup for that statement, even?

Howard Shaffer said...

It isn't a jab at the media. Have you heard it repeated?

Mike Mulligan said...

I had to extract this from our resident inspector. It wasn't admitted by anyone until i asked. They were wrapping up replacing the DG electrical cables from DG room to the switchgear room...that is a lot of 480 volt safety cables. It is a enormous event for the operators and the DG was dead for may days...I think five days. I am sure the operators had safety meeting after safety meeting about this, then the maintenance rule risk evaluations, with the NRC having issues with Entergy not doing these evaluations in the recent past. I am certain they were well aware of the value of this machine. It is just preposterous they could ever tag out the wrong machine.

You get it from this guys, they got so many back-up to the back-up up safety systems, the black box risk calculation that nobody can ever understand including the NRC....all that ever comes back is "we were always safe" and "nothing ever matters" because we got so many safety systems. That is the mantra of the nuclear industry.

Again, because Entergy and the NRC didn't place the screw-up in its full context of those large cables being replaced...they were falsifying the true events around this. I consider the event report itself as being falsified because they didn't include the full context with what happened in this event.

Did you catch me in the VSNAP meeting, I was kidding Entergy with their recent trip at the Palisades nuclear plant just hours ago that wasn't in the news yet. I said, "Vermont Yankee is a angel compared the Palisades plant". The top contingent of management for the first time actually came up to me and shook my hand as a gentleman in this meeting, and i was impressed by this kindly gesture.

Here is my new NRC allegation:

Meredith Angwin said...

Hello Mike.

Thank you for your comment. If you see something you think is wrong, you should report it, and that is what you have done. I am not knowledgeable enough about plant systems to address the issues in your note, but hopefully, the people who know about plant systems will review it. However, I don't think it is "falsifying" to describe an event without describing other issues at the same time. But, as I said before, this is outside of my expertise--whether the other issues you mention were relevant and important to the event that was reported.

I was not at the VSNAP meeting, but I am glad that you were treated well!


jimwg said...

What really gets me about most anti-nukers is their single-minded passion to totally overlook and forgive the mass past and current deadly sins on health and property perpetuated by oil and coal and gas electrogeneration to rather slam and condemn a power source whose very worst days in over sixty years of worldwide operation has killed and maimed less people than the crash of a single non-jumbo jet. Or many single mine and oil rig and gas facility mishaps. Even with incompetence, neglect, gas equipment and malfunctions, and bad bookkeeping thrown in. People would howl to shut down a nuclear plant if just one person died but shrug when oil or gas explosions put away half a neighborhood. It just can't merely be a safety and health issue that's stuck in the craw of anti-nukers against nuclear energy in the face of that. It's like nightmares of what might happen totally overweighs the reality and the historical fact of what doesn't happen even when it does. There are hundreds if not thousands of families and widows of oil and gas and coal workers who would've happily traded their lost family member's job for one at Fujushima. To be anti-nuke despite the millions of lives daily affected by fossil fuel effects long before nukes made the scene is like looking a gift horse in the mouth. It's like some crazy crusade of fear and grudges looking for a dragon to slay, and our virulently baised media ought be ashamed of proclaiming themselves "fair". I just don't understand the beef.

James Greenidge

Mike Mulligan said...

Hmm, the nuclear industry’s daddy is the same daddy as the coal, natural gas and the lying green energy sources....all the energy sources that supply our electricity. You got a penny pinching selfish father who for pennies of benefits on the big picture, that is destructively playing his children off against each other.

What makes the nuclear industry so vulnerable is their penchant for secrecy...the right wing has to have secrets in order to be. It is the secrets that gives him the advantage, not hard work and creativity...creating a better world for us all.

My general complaint with the nuclear industry...nuclear safety... is a they are driven by a distructive 1%er right wing ideology. I think the nuclear technology is a precious gift to us all.

As far as trading lives and jobs with Japanese, there is still 130,000 people who has had their homes stolen from them by the nuclear right wing genie. They are still displaced by the horrors of a of a nuclear accident. I suspect not many of them even have a job and that genie has stolen many jobs not related to the nuclear industry...

I would frame the real and powerful anti nukes as the utility and financial daddy who structures the whole nuclear industry for his singular selfish interest? The real anti nukes are the extreme pronukes who would align the nuclear industry and safety for solely individual gains of the 1%ers and themselves.