Thursday, March 14, 2013

Actually, They Did Fix the Cooling Towers. Or, the importance of confronting falsehoods

My blog post It Was Safety Safety Safety. Lawyers can't rescue a weak case was originally published as an op-ed in my local paper, the Valley News, on February 10.  (It may be behind a paywall at this point.)  In the paper, it was illustrated by a picture similar to this one:

After  one of my op-ed pieces appears in the Valley News, I get myself emotionally ready for the replies in the letters to the editor section.   I usually handle this sort of thing pretty well.  After all, the negative comments are not really about me.  It's all about nuclear power...

The First Letter Blows My Cool

Whoops. Actually, I don't always handle it that well.  As I proved by reading the first letter that appeared, about four days after my op-ed ran.

Before we get to that first letter and what happened afterwards, let's look at that picture again. That first  letter didn't discuss my article, it discussed the picture: A Telling Picture of Vermont Yankee.  Here's the first substantive statement in that letter:

"You can tell it’s an old photo because both banks of cooling towers are working. One has since collapsed (in 2007) due to lack of maintenance and has never been repaired."

I read this and hit the roof.   What-What-What!  He claims that the cooling towers had never been repaired!  Broken since 2007! What an outright...outright...outright.....

A cooling tower is repaired or not-repaired.  It's not an ambiguous situation.   Of course the cooling towers were repaired since 2007!

I called the editor of the paper and asked him to run a correction.  Before doing so, he wanted more than my word that the cooling towers had been repaired.  He wanted the date when the cooling tower repair was completed.

This date for the completion of the repairs wasn't mentioned in any article I could find, though I did find an article that implied that repairs were complete in spring 2008.   I contacted the plant and obtained the repair-completion-date information that the editor needed. The plant sent me an email from one of the engineers, and they gave me permission to forward the email to the editor.  That took care of the matter from my end.  The Valley News editor,  Martin Frank, wrote a correction.

 Here's the correction that now appears  on the Valley News website at the end of the "Telling Picture of Vermont Yankee" letter.


The following correction appeared in the Feb. 28 edition of the Valley News:

The cooling tower at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant that collapsed in 2007 was permanently repaired and back in service by May 2008. A letter published Feb. 14 incorrectly asserted that the structure had never been repaired.

Whew!  And a big thank you to editor Martin Frank for his professional handling of the situation.

Howard's Letter

This was not the only letter about my post, but it was the most difficult to deal with.  Happily, Howard Shaffer wrote a great letter refuting several negative letters. His letter, The Facts About Vermont Yankee discusses the the tower repairs, the economic requirements for owning a nuclear plant, and more. Here is one of my favorite paragraphs from Shaffer's letter:

"The third letter claims tritium is dangerous. So is arsenic in our drinking water — or not, depending on the amount. Drinking water is needed for life, but can kill you — as was proven by the tragic case of the marathon runner who drank too much. (Meredith's) op-ed never said that tritium in any amount was not dangerous, just that the tritium-tainted water that leaked from Vermont Yankee was not. “The dose makes the poison” is true of radiation, too."

Was It Worth It?

Decision Tree
from Wikipedia
All's well that ends well? Since Martin Frank wrote a correction and Howard Shaffer wrote a letter, is the problem solved? In other words, was it worth the time it took to get this correction made?

Maybe yes and maybe no.

The letters claimed all sorts of things about the dangers of the spent fuel pool, the dangers of tritium, thermal discharge into the Connecticut River etc.  (Only one letter even mentioned the economic contribution of the plant to the area, which was the gist of my op-ed.)

Yet the only thing that we countered was that the cooling towers were actually repaired.  Did that matter?

I think it did.  Most of the statements in the opponent letters are non-falsifiable. They are more matters of opinion or faith than of science.  They provide nothing to test or to verify, though there may be something to argue about.

However, when nuclear opponents begin using incorrect facts, something has to be done about it.  You have to get a correction in print.  You really have to do so if you possibly can.  At least, that's how I feel about it.


Extra Credit Reading: About Some Other Letters

One letter was the usual thing: Safety and economics are linked.  It included the odd statement that: "Is it possible that the law regarding regulation of nuclear power was designed to present the illusion of their (safety and economic) separability in an attempt to eliminate the possibility of legal challenge by states and local communities?"

Well, that's one way of looking at federal-level  safety regulations, I guess. My main response to this letter was "ho-hum, same-old."

Another letter was somewhat more annoying.  Titled Misinformation on Vermont Yankee,  it starts with "Defenders of Entergy’s attempts to continue operation of the controversial Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon are waging a strategic war of misinformation..."It goes on to talk about the dangers of tritium. The letter finished by explaining that the letter-writer had read the "small print" at the end of the op-ed. He discovered that:  I worked for the nuclear industry in the past,  I blog as "yes vermont yankee," and I am associated with the Ethan Allen Institute.  

Gosh, I didn't think the type at the end of the op-ed was that small!  Should I ask the editor to put that information in a bigger font next time?   

Basically, once again, however, my response was "ho--hum."  Though I admit I don't like to be accused of  "waging a strategic war of misinformation."

At any rate, the accusation that I am waging a "strategic war of misinformation" is sort of....non-falsifiable.


jimwg said...

The story of social crusading save-the-world media: The ends justify the means, even if it means an "error" imprinting an indelible FUD stain. A reporter or editor making such a crucial "error" is either malicious or incompetent in my book. We'll know whether their retraction is sincere when they contritely write a positive piece on nuclear for once. Should I hold my breath?

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Meredith Angwin said...


I disagree with you. Mr. Frank is honest, thoughtful and professional. People write letters to the editor saying all sorts of things, and I don't think the editor has an up-front requirement to fact-check all the letters. The editor doesn't sign the letters, the letter-writer signs them!

In this case, though, since it was an unambiguous factual error in a letter, Frank corrected it, once he had more than a "he-said, she-said" source for the correction.

Mike Mulligan said...

Don't make me go find, the NRC gave them some 6 years to fully inspect and repair the cooling towers.

I was on my bike opposite the plant in Hinsdale yesterday...they seemed to have some heavy equipment and dump trucks operating behind the cooling towers?

Probably scooping out the contaminated silt and mud in the deep basin...

Actually, this goes to how poorly the NRC organizes their documents in the Adam document repository... you can't do a search on VY cooling towers with one click of the mouse and come up with a list paragraphs where "cooling towers" was mentioned in inspection reports is shown.

Meredith Angwin said...


I have no idea what you hope to find in the NRC data repository, but the cooling towers were fixed and operational in 2008. I'm not "making you" find anything. I know and I have the data: the date the cooling towers were completely operational again after the problem in 2007. The complete repair took place by May 2008. There was another problem in July 2008, and the second problem was fixed in July 2008. I have those dates, also.

If you claim the cooling towers were not fixed, you are incorrect. End of story.


Mike Mulligan said...


So how would you know it works? What is the evidence it works? This is a system designed to assure the public they would be safe if the dam or intake structure failed...but really the license operators with knowledge would never trust it. We are the "show me" it works people at the plant. They got no preoperational or post-operational proof the emergency cell and the alternate RHR service water lineup would ever work. Cooling down the plant and supporting the DGs. It is just a paper whipping nuclear safety system.

This has been the thirst of the plantover decades to become overly dependant on the Vernon dam tie, now the new diesel generator to replace the tie.

At the end of the day, they want to do first time preoperational testing of this system when the Vernon dam fails. It is now a system just for "show".

And everyone knows I was involved with forcing VY to get that new diesel generator...Entergy knows that.

Meredith Angwin said...


The issue was this:
- A cooling tower cell failed at VY in 2007
- Someone wrote a letter in my local paper claiming that the cell had never been repaired
- Actually, It was repaired
- I have an email from an engineer at VY with the dates of the repair and the date the repair was completed

You have been emailing about Vernon Dam, and your claimed role in new diesel generators and so forth and so on. In other words, you are changing the subject.

The fact is that the cooling tower cell repair was completed. The VY engineer is telling the truth and has dates and so forth to back it up.

I have the name of the engineer on the email, and I sent the email to the reporter. However, the plant prefers that people outside the plant contact the plant spokespeople, not the engineers. So I am not putting the engineer's name here. Every large company I worked for would have used the same protocol about contacting people within the company.

So, this is not about Vernon Dam. It is not about diesels. It is not about the ADAMS list of incidents.

It is about the repair of one cell of a cooling tower. It was repaired. End of story.

Mike Mulligan said...

Right, I irk you with you saying "I changed the subject" when I can broaden the context of the understanding of this issue...

Although I think you are much brighter that the reformer letter writer. Between the two of us, I have been the only one who has walked all over those ancient cooling towers.

-the picture is a symbol of Entergy's early dysfunction seen all over the state and region. The tower pictures first came out by the antis and a union strike was right around the corner. Most people think the pictures got the potential strike settled. Did the union give the antis the pictures?

-the cooling tower is really two systems...water cools the main condenser in the summer and supports cooling the core and the emergency diesel generator in a dire emergency.

-Generally the bounding severe accident is fire in the control room and they have to cool down the plant in a LOOP with equipment outside equipment. They kept coming up to time limits with powering up the plant, actually the time limit for action was reduced because of the power uprate, supplying cooling water to the DGs...that is why they wanted to hook up one side the emergency cooling system to the dam.

-the pictures got the state into thinking VY was no longer reliable and trustful.

-the dramatic pictures were worth more to turn the outsiders against the plant than the actual plant risk to the community with the damage...

-the Vernon tie, the DGs and the emergency tower cell are interdependent and holistic systems designed to protect the public.

-I work through the DOE, them to talk to FERC and come down on the NE come to the conclusion the grid blackout procedure was unworkable for VY, indeed the NE grid. Can the NE ISO codes detect the reliability of the dam...can the ISO see a degradation. Actually, with all this public secrecy over the facility, how can the public protect themselves.