Ex-industry insider goes extra mile to fight Vt. Yankee
Paul Blanch is a retired nuclear engineer from Connecticut.
MONTPELIER — When Paul Blanch heard that the Vermont Legislature would take one more day of testimony before voting on the future of its nuclear power plant, the West Hartford, Conn., resident jumped into his car and drove to the Green Mountain State.
Blanch, a retired nuclear engineer with more than 40 years of experience in the field, made the 200 mile drive on his own dime.
"I'm not here representing anyone," Blanch said. "I'm also not anti-nuclear. I consider myself a proponent of safe nuclear power."
Vermont Yankee, Blanch contends, is not safe nuclear power.
"The place was designed for 40 years," he told the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Thursday morning. Hours later, he was called over to the Senate Finance Committee, which was finalizing testimony on this week's Vermont Yankee bill. "It's unacceptable to me to imagine that plant running for another 20 years," he told that committee.
Blanch, 68, is retired from the nuclear industry – a career change that wasn't entirely his choice.
In 1988, Blanch became a nuclear power whistleblower when he told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that his employer, Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut, was experiencing major malfunctions with a piece of safety equipment. It wasn't just that plant; the problem was industry-wide.
He's worked mostly as a consultant since then, including for the state of New York, but the experience changed his mind about the effectiveness of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its close relationship to the private energy companies that own many of the industry's nuclear power plants.
During Thursday's committee hearing, Sen. Claire Ayers, D-Addison, asked Blanch if he thought the NRC provided good oversight of the industry. Blanch paused, then grinned slightly. He joked that "there can be a lot of definitions of oversight." The committee laughed.
"The NRC has a run-to-failure policy," said Blanch, who says this is a classic case of the regulators being too close to the industry. "They don't have a plan for dealing with things like tritium. Right now, they are in panic mode over what's happening."
Naturally, the NRC does not agree.
Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the regulatory commission, said it's clear that Blanch "cares deeply about nuclear safety." But the commission disagrees with almost everything he says, including that it has a "run-to-failure, fix-it-when-it-breaks mentality," as Blanch had told lawmakers last week.
"That philosophy would be completely at odds with our approach, which is to ensure that the margins of safety are preserved and that public health and safety are first and foremost when it comes to the operation of nuclear power plants," Sheehan wrote in an e-mail.
Deb Katz, the executive director of the anti-nuclear group Citizens Action Network, said Blanch's testimony last week may have been the first time that a nuclear engineer has explicitly called for a nuclear power plant not to be relicensed.
"This is an important moment in the history of nuclear power," she said. "Experts just don't go this far unless, of course, the situation is extreme."
Blanch has Vermont roots. A 1959 graduate of Pittsford High School, he began his nuclear career when he joined the Navy in Burlington five years later. When he visited Vermont last week to testify, he stayed at his brother's home in Brandon.
His job with the Navy led him to working on nuclear submarines. A frequent critic of corporate-owned nuclear power stations and the perceived lack of government oversight, Blanch said the military knows how to run a safe nuclear power facility.
"I slept 100 feet from a nuclear reactor for months," he said. "I believe the Navy's nuclear power fleet is the safest in the world."
Blanch told the Senate lawmakers that he is opposed to the relicensing of Vermont Yankee for 20 years and the controversial plan to sell the plant and five others to a spinoff company. "It's a shell game to shield their stockholders from the liability of these plants," he said.
This isn't the first time he's encountered Entergy, the company that owns Vermont Yankee.
New York state's Indian Point 2 reactor had what Blanch calls a major tritium leak in February 2009 when a pipe ruptured and sent an estimated millions of gallons of radioactive water into the environment. Blanch said the NRC shrugged off the accident, not even issuing a news release about the problem. Entergy, which owns Indian Point 2, determined that the cause of the leak was corrosion of its underground pipes.
"I believe that plant leaked millions of gallons of water," he said. "I contend that it had been leaking for 30 years."
Too old to run
But Blanch contends that tritium leaks from underground pipes are not the main problem facing nuclear power plants such as Vermont Yankee and Indian Point. These leaks are symptoms of a larger issue: the advanced age of the facilities and the continued delay in upkeep of the infrastructure. These power plants are simply too old, he said.
"I don't think you'll see tritium levels any higher than 2.5 million picocuries," he told the committees. "That's essentially reactor coolant at that point."
Blanch said underground pipes at nuclear power plants can't be inspected unless they are dug up. Indian Point had 8,000 feet of underground piping, and Blanch estimates that Vermont Yankee, a different type of reactor, has about 1,000 feet of pipe.
He showed the committees pictures of the underground pipes and valves at the first Indian Point reactor – a plant that was shut down in 1974 due to safety problems after operating for 12 years. Also an Entergy plant, that facility is now in "safestor" – a decommissioning process that involves delaying clean-up for decades.
The pipes are corroded. They look ancient.
"If I drink tritium water will I die? Probably not," Blanch said. "But it would increase the chance that I'll die an earlier death."
Blanch said he doesn't expect the NRC to change itself. The only way to force the federal commission to "do its job," he said, is to appeal to the U.S. Congress, which has the power to pass legislation directing the commission to, for example, plan better for corroded underground pipes and tritium leaks. U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, would be a good person to direct those concerns to, he added.
"If they want change, if they want tougher regulations, the next step would be to have the state Legislature pass a resolution to that effect," he said. "Write to Congress. Demand proper regulation. Demand what it takes."
Sen. Margaret "Peg" Flory, R-Rutland, a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, pressed Blanch to explain how top Entergy officials and the state of Vermont could have believed the Vermont Yankee plant didn't have underground pipes "if they were essential parts of all nuclear plants."
"Everyone can see they are not hanging there in the air," Flory said.
"You are preaching to the choir, Senator," Blanch responded.MORE IN Central VermontThe gubernatorial debate Wednesday night in downtown Rutland kicked off with the news of the day. Full Story
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