Residents Skeptical of Yankee Assurances

October 15, 2008

By Susan Smallheer, Herald Staff
BRATTLEBORO - Area residents made it clear to Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials Tuesday that they didn't believe their assurances that Entergy Nuclear's recurring problems with its cooling towers at Vermont Yankee didn't translate to more serious problems.

Sam Collins, regional administrator for the NRC, told about 100 people gathered at the Latchis Theatre that while Entergy had problems with communication, design and oversight with the cooling towers, the problems didn't rise to the level of a safety threat.

George Malone, an NRC inspector who was part of a team that came to Vernon this summer after more leaks and decay were found, said there was no indication the structural problems were due to lack of maintenance.

Deb Katz, executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network of nearby Shelburne, Mass., an anti-nuclear group with members throughout New England, said the people of the region were frustrated with the NRC and Entergy Nuclear.

"I know you're not happy to see us. Well, we're not so happy to see you either, because it means something has gone wrong again at Vermont Yankee," Katz said.

Katz said the only reason for the NRC to hold the public meeting on the cooling tower issue was the continuing problems at Vermont Yankee.

"When does it reach systemic mismanagement?" Katz said to Collins and other NRC officials.

In August 2007, there was a partial collapse of a portion of the west tower, and in July and September there was a series of leaks in the east tower.

Katz reeled off a list of other recent problems at the reactor - the failure of brakes on a crane holding a giant cask of high-level radioactive waste and a leak in the main steam condenser in the plant.

Collins said that because the cooling towers were not safety related, they were largely outside the control of federal regulators.

The exception is two out of the 22 cells in the cooling towers, which provide backup cooling in the event of a major emergency, he noted.

Critics said after the meeting that the NRC had rigged the format so public comment was limited to only 45 minutes, after Entergy officials gave a long and detailed presentation on the three main problems with the cooling towers.

"In football, they call it 'running the clock,'" said Arnie Gundersen, chairman of the Vermont Oversight Panel, which was established by the 2008 Legislature to oversee the special inspection under way at the plant.

The special inspection is designed to give legislators an independent assessment of the reactor and whether it should receive an amended license to continue operating for another 20 years.

Gundersen, who is a nuclear engineer who had predicted the tower problems back in 2004, has sparred openly with the Douglas administration and the NRC over Vermont Yankee. He was limited to asking the NRC only one question.

"Do you have a question?" Collins asked.

When others in the audience shouted out that Gundersen could have their time, Collins refused.

There was plenty of theatrics at the meeting. About 100 people attended, and Collins repeatedly threatened to have one anti-nuclear activist removed because he wouldn't be quiet.

Later, when former Gov. Thomas Salmon, a former utility executive, got up to give his support to Entergy, the crowd turned the tables and shouted: "Is there a question?"

Salmon sat down in exasperation.

Earlier in the day, Collins had told reporters the session was "a fairly unusual meeting" because the NRC just doesn't have much oversight when it comes to cooling towers. Cooling towers are an economic and environmental issue, he said.

But he said the NRC, like the people of Vermont, is concerned that the cooling tower problems indicate larger and more serious problems.

While he said there were problems with how Entergy inspected and analyzed the problems at the tower, there was no evidence that similar problems existed on the nuclear side of things.

At the end of the meeting, people left in frustration, and a few protesters silently put brown paper bags over their heads and stood in the theater lobby, making way for theatergoers who came to see the evening's movie, "Body of Lies."

"That's appropriate," said one state legislator.

Contact Susan Smallheer at