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.
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