Backtracking and in trouble: A detailed timeline on who said what on Vt. Yankee
MONTPELIER – Vermont lawmakers created a special legislative panel of nuclear experts in the summer of 2008 to investigate the reliability of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and its ability to operate for 20 years beyond the end of its current license.
One question that this Oversight Panel had was how many underground pipes carrying radioactive material the Vernon nuclear reactor had at its site. Every nuclear reactor of its type had underground piping systems carrying radioactivity and these systems sometimes tend to leak, drastically increasing the cost of decommissioning the nuclear power plant.
But representatives of Entergy, the company that has owned the plant since 2002, repeatedly told the Oversight Panel, which featured appointees by both lawmakers and the governor, that Vermont Yankee did not have such a system. Entergy officials, on several occasions under oath, told the Public Service Board the same thing.
With revelations this month that Vermont Yankee is leaking tritium – a radioactive isotope – into nearby groundwater, it became clear that those statements were wrong. Entergy calls it a "miscommunication" and anti-nuclear activists call it a bald lie.
Using transcripts of testimony before the Public Service Board, filings before the Public Service Department, e-mails released by the Oversight Panel and local news reports, we have attempted to assemble of rough time-line of who said what and when – and which of those statements have been revealed to be untrue.
State Nuclear Engineer William Sherman writes to the Oversight Panel that the state was "informed there are no underground piping systems carrying radioactivity …" at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
Sherman writes again to the Oversight Panel that he asked specifically about buried piping in interviews with Vermont Yankee officials. Sherman writes that plant officials told him the only underground pipeline was long abandoned. "Therefore, I was satisfied there was no buried radioactive piping," he wrote.
The group Nuclear Safety Associates, hired by the Vermont Department of Public Service, issues its inspection report declaring there are no underground pipes carrying radiation at Vermont Yankee.
The Public Oversight Panel tells lawmakers that, based on information from the NSA and Entergy, they do not believe there are underground radioactive pipes at Vermont Yankee.
Entergy files a document with the NRC showing that Vermont Yankee, since 1995, has had contaminated storm drains that flow into the Connecticut River. The releases into the river, according to Entergy, have been below NRC limits.
Jay Thayer, the vice-president of operations at Vermont Yankee, tells the PSB under oath when asked about underground piping that, "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."
Later that month, Columb testified under oath before the PSB, saying "I believe we have identified one pipe that was underneath the chemistry laboratory that end – I believe leaked in the past, did contaminate some soil under the building, has since been sealed, and a new line that is not underground was routed."
State Nuclear Engineer Uldis Vanags tells the PSB that costs to decommission Vermont Yankee will be less than the cost to decommissioning the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant because the Vernon site does not have underground piping.
Vermont Yankee is "fairly unique in that except for that one line from the chemistry drain line, that underground line carrying radionuclides that contaminated some soils underneath the building, oddly they don't have any other lines carrying radioactive effluents or materials underground, which was not the case at Maine Yankee," he said.
Arnie Gundersen, a member of the Oversight Panel, e-mails Public Service Department Commissioner David O'Brien and tells him that he has "since become aware that there may be underground pipes that do indeed carry radioactivity at VY." He asks O'Brien to pose the question to Entergy one more time.
O'Brien responds in an e-mail that the "Department believes it will be more efficient and less prone to miscommunication if your questions are given directly to Vermont Yankee rather than going through the Department."
O'Brien e-mails Entergy Legislative Liaison Dave McElwee saying, "Arnie has a concern that there may be underground active pipes carrying radionuclides that we are not aware of. Can you address this?" Gundersen writes to O'Brien that it is "possible that [Entergy] did not give the panel the appropriate information."
McElwee writes to Gundersen that "other than piping carrying gaseous material … we have none. Since this is not an item active in the review … we consider this issue closed."
During a legislative hearing on radiation monitoring, Entergy cannot explain how Cobalt 60 ended up in the Connecticut River in the late 1990s. Spokesperson Rob Williams said the plant's storm drains were not considered "underground piping."
Fairewinds Associates, a group of consultants hired by lawmakers, issues a report saying that "information given to the Panel by [Entergy]" about underground pipes "was not correct." Copies of the report are sent to Entergy and the Department of Public Service.
Entergy responds to that report, saying they "take issue with the entire tone of the consultant's report, which leaves the impression that plant reliability is lacking at VY. Issues cited as 'significant' are really routine …"
Gundersen tells the Joint Fiscal Committee that, "We got the wrong information, but I did want to let the Legislature know that we gave you the wrong information. We said there was no underground pipe that was contaminated, and in fact there is."
An Entergy spokesperson tells Vermont Public Radio that it was a "miscommunication" and that officials thought the Panel was asking about pipes included in a federal safety program, not pipes that flow to the Connecticut River.
Jan. 8, 2010:
Entergy reveals that tritium has been discovered in groundwater during a well test at Vermont Yankee. State officials and the NRC downplay the significance, noting that levels tested at 17,000 piccuries per liter, about 3,000 piccuries below federal drinking water standards. Gundersen tells reporters that this is a sign of a "pipe or tank leaking somewhere."
Jan. 11, 2010:
The NRC sends top officials to Vermont Yankee to observe the efforts to find the leak. State health officials say they will allow Entergy to do its investigation and will only have a role in the eventual clean-up.
Jan. 13, 2010:
Under the gun for accusations that they misled lawmakers, Entergy calls the confusion over whether or not they have underground radioactive pipes an issue of "misunderstanding."
Jan. 14, 2010:
The Douglas administration accuses Entergy of misleading regulators and says they are now reconsidering their position in support of the relicensing of the plant. "It was unequivocal that information is just wrong," Department of Public Service Deputy Commissioner Steve Wark says.
Jan. 15, 2010:
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin announces that he is reconvening the Public Oversight Panel after revelations that Entergy gave the panel inaccurate information. Thayer tells reporters that he takes full responsibility for the wrong information and issues apologies to the state and lawmakers.
Jan. 19, 2010:
Entergy announces that a second Vermont Yankee well has tested positive for tritium. Days later, the company announces that test was a "false positive."
Jan, 20, 2010:
Shumlin tells reporters that more than 100 gallons of tritium-contaminated water was found in an underground trench at Vermont Yankee. The measurements for this water came back at more than 2 million picocuries per liter, or about 100 times the federal limit. Meanwhile, tritium levels in the first well pass 20,000 picocuries per liter, the federal drinking water limit.
Jan. 21, 2010:
The Vermont Press Bureau reports that Attorney General William Sorrell is investigating whether Entergy officials lied under oath to regulators. Douglas tells reporters that he is worried about the leaks – and that Vermonters have lost faith in the company – but that he still expects lawmakers to vote this year on relicensing.
Jan. 22, 2010:
Radioactive Cobalt-60 and Zinc-65 are discovered in the trench at Vermont Yankee. Vermont's congressional delegation calls for a special NRC investigation and Entergy announces that it has hired a law firm to help assist its internal investigation.
Jan. 25, 2010:
Entergy files a document with the Department showing there are about 40 underground pipes at Vermont Yankee. Democratic leaders of the Legislature call on Douglas to pull his support for the plant's relicensing.
Jan. 27, 2010:
Douglas announces that Entergy should fire its management and that he no longer wants lawmakers to vote on Vermont Yankee's continued operation this year. That same day, the Vermont Public Service Board tells Entergy attorneys that the company has a history and pattern of giving false information.
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