Vermont Yankee Faulted for Leaks

October 15, 2008
By Sam Hemingway, Free Press Staff Writer
BRATTLEBORO - A Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector said Tuesday that slack engineering by Entergy Nuclear workers was to blame for two recent cooling tower leaks at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon.

"Entergy's design change process requires providing adequate engineering drawings and instructions ... and also requires engineers to resolve technical issues identified during implementation," NRC's George Malone said. "Entergy did not do that."

The leaks, in July and September, forced Entergy to temporarily reduce Vermont Yankee's power output. The plant provides a third of the energy consumed in Vermont. In August 2007, the plant was shut down after the partial collapse of a cooling tower.

Malone said the NRC did not view any of the leaks as threats to the safety of the plant but said the NRC would step up its monitoring of Entergy's management of the facility as a result.

Malone, who helped head up the NRC team that studied Entergy's handling of the leak incidents, made the comment during a public hearing NRC conducted at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro. The 50 or so people who attended also heard an Entergy official apologize for the cooling tower problems.

"We own this problem," Entergy Vice President Ted Sullivan said. "The performance is unacceptable to us. It's unacceptable to Entergy's organization. We're working very hard to bring the towers into reliability status."

John Dreyfuss, Vermont Yankee's director of safety, acknowledged that plant workers had not been vigilant enough in monitoring the condition of the towers. Subsequent inspection has shown that wooden supports in the tower complexes had rotted over time and pipe joints had weakened.

"We did not do all the inspection we could have been doing," Dreyfuss said. He said Entergy is in the midst of a renovation of the two tower structures, designed to cool water in the power generation processes of the plant.

The hearing included all three members of a panel appointed by the Legislature to study the condition of the 650-megawatt plant. Entergy is seeking NRC and state approval to operate the plant another 30 years.

Arnold Gunderson, one of the panel's members, said after the meeting that he was frustrated with how little time was provided for him and others to question NRC and Entergy officials about the tower problems.

"It's upsetting that a panel that is supposed to represent the 600,000 people of Vermont was given only two minutes to ask questions," Gunderson said.

Clay Turnbull, a member of the anti-nuclear New England Coalition, criticized the NRC for allowing Entergy officials to put on a lengthy presentation and then not allowing people to ask more than a single question.

"They set it up like a maze to make it impossible for the public to wade their way through everything," Turnbull said. He said the New England Coalition later this week will ask the federal Office of Inspector General to investigate NRC's "regulatory incompetence" in connection with its oversight of Vermont Yankee.

Not everyone was disappointed, however. Former Gov. Tom Salmon praised the NRC and Entergy for presenting a clear, detailed account of the cooling tower problems and what is being done to address them.

"This was exceedingly helpful," Salmon said. "Whatever shortcomings there are against management for oversight of the plant ... are not in any way, shape or manner a threat to the public health."

Contact Sam Hemingway at or 660-1850.