The growing list of woes at Vermont Yankee is bad news for its parent company, Louisiana-based Entergy. But the technical mishaps, monetary shortfalls and radioactive leaks at the state’s sole nuclear power plant have been a boon for independent nuclear experts Arnie and Maggie Gundersen, whose insights are now highly sought after by lawmakers and the press alike.
Just consider their schedule last week. On Tuesday morning, Arnie was on WDEV radio’s “The Mark Johnson Show” explaining to listeners what it means for the plant to be leaking tritium, a cancer-causing radioactive isotope. Later that day, Arnie and his wife, Maggie, spoke to about 150 students at the Vermont Law School about safety and reliability problems at the 38-year-old Vernon facility.
On Wednesday, Arnie testified in Montpelier before two Senate committees, where he urged lawmakers to vote immediately to shut down the trouble-plagued plant. On Thursday, Arnie was fielding phone calls and inquiries from various state and federal officials, as well as reporters and antinuke activists from around the country. On Friday, he attended a noon tea with faculty members at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute to answer their questions about Vermont Yankee.
In their “down” time, the Gundersens squeezed in some work for clients of their Burlington consulting firm, Fairewinds Associates Inc. That work includes providing expert testimony on four new nuclear plants proposed in Florida. The applicant for two of those reactors, Florida Power & Light, wants to pump radioactive effluent under a local aquifer — an idea Maggie describes as “sick.” The Gundersens are working for opponents of the plant.
It’d be easy to chalk up the couple’s no-nukes stance as payback. A former industry insider, Arnie became a federal whistleblower two decade ago, the consequences of which nearly destroyed his family.
But the Gundersens’ opposition to the continued operation of these aging facilities, especially Vermont Yankee, isn’t motivated by revenge — Arnie often points out that he’s one of the few expert witnesses on nuclear power who testifies both for and against the utility companies. Rather, they’re driven by a deep, firsthand knowledge of how nuclear reactors work, and their fear of what can happen when they malfunction. It’s one reason the Gundersens have become the go-to experts for state lawmakers who, now more than ever, need a sober and independent assessment of Vermont Yankee’s strengths and weaknesses.
Also, they’ve proven themselves. Over the last seven years, the Gundersens have accurately predicted numerous problems at Vermont Yankee, from the collapsed cooling towers in 2007 to the decommissioning-fund shortfall, to the recently discovered leaking underground pipes.
In 2003, when the plant’s owner, Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee, asked state regulators for permission to increase their power output by 20 percent, Arnie warned them that such an “uprate” would exponentially increase radiation levels at the facility’s fence line, posing a potential public health threat. He also warned that the extra stress on the system caused by running the plant 20 percent harder could cause a cooling tower to collapse.
Though Entergy officials downplayed those concerns, both of Arnie’s forecasts later proved correct. Indeed, after Entergy tried to impeach Arnie’s testimony as inaccurate and biased, the Public Service Board fined Entergy $51,000.
Then in 2007, Fairewind Associates issued a white paper revealing that if Vermont Yankee shuts down in 2012 when its current license expires, there won’t be enough money in the plant’s decommissioning fund, potentially saddling Vermont taxpayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in nuclear cleanup costs. Though Entergy officials vehemently denied that claim, the Gundersens’ calculations today are widely accepted as fact. Indeed, subsequent investigations of the decommissioning funds of other nuclear plants around the country have revealed similar shortfalls, all of which were based on the Gundersens’ initial exposé.
Arnie is the expert who first began asking questions last year about Entergy’s claim that there were no underground pipes at Vermont Yankee carrying radioactive material. As a member of the Public Oversight Panel for the Vermont Yankee Reliability Assessment, he began publicly challenging Entergy’s assertion in July 2009, and later documented those concerns in a quarterly report to the legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee in October. Two days later, Entergy officials issued a press release challenging Gundersen’s claim and “tone.”
“Entergy was doing a good job of trying to make us look bad,” Maggie recalls, noting that several lawmakers pulled her aside as recently as December to suggest privately that Arnie was “losing his credibility … and looking a little crazy,” because Entergy kept insisting it had no underground piping. Several weeks later, Arnie was proven correct when tritium began turning up in underground monitoring wells at levels many times higher than federal law allows.
“My experience with Arnie is that he is the only person in Vermont who has been right about Vermont Yankee every single time in terms of reliability and maintenance,” says Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, who appointed Arnie Gundersen to the Public Oversight Panel. Shumlin’s district includes Vermont Yankee. He describes Arnie as “the perfect candidate” for the job of independent overseer.
Being a predictor of what can, and will, go wrong at nuclear power plants is a familiar role for Arnie Gundersen. Prior to moving to Vermont, where he worked until 2008 as a math and physics teacher at Burlington High School, Arnie spent 20 years as a licensed nuclear-reactor operator assessing the safety and reliability of nuclear plants, and planning their decommissioning. He eventually rose to the level of senior vice president of Nuclear Energy Services, one of the nation’s premier nuclear-maintenance firms. NES counts Vermont Yankee among its clients.
Maggie Gundersen is a paralegal and former teacher and journalist. She and Arnie met in 1978 while Maggie was working in public relations for New York State Electric and Gas, which at the time was trying to license a nuclear plant along the shores of Lake Ontario. That plan was scuttled a year later, when America’s confidence in nuclear power was rattled to the core by a partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island. Arnie not only testified in court about the causes of that accident, he was one of only three expert witnesses for the plaintiffs whose testimony was not dismissed by the judge.
But the Gundersens’ professional careers, finances and personal lives were thrown into turmoil in April 1990, when Arnie discovered low-level radioactive material stashed in an accounting safe at NES headquarters in Danbury, Conn. After alerting federal regulators, he was fired from his $120,000-a-year job, blacklisted by the industry, and harassed and ostracized by former coworkers.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission later determined that there wasn’t enough radioactive material in the safe to violate its regulations. And his former friends and colleagues smeared his reputation and credibility, not unlike what happened to the protagonist in the movie The Insider, about a former tobacco-industry executive turned whistleblower.
Still, Arnie refused to keep quiet about other safety problems at his company. In retaliation for his outspokenness, his former employer slapped him with a $1.5 million defamation suit. The case was settled out of court six years later, but not before the Gundersens filed for bankruptcy, foreclosed on their house, and endured other personal and professional hardships.
Their brush with financial ruin is not apparent at the Gundersens’ cozy home in Burlington’s New North End, where they live with their cat and bear-sized Bernese mountain dog named Hobbes. (Both the Gundersens’ children are now grown and live out of state.) Arnie explains the technical intricacies of nuclear reactors to a nonexpert with the methodical patience of a former high school math and physics teacher — he now teaches math at the Community College of Vermont in Burlington.
Occasionally he interjects anecdotes about how the industry overlooked key safety concerns and avoided major catastrophe only by sheer luck. With bemused contempt, Arnie recounts how, in 1994, the owners of the now-decommissioned Dresden Nuclear Plant in Illinois turned off the heat in the reactor building, causing the pipes to freeze and burst, and releasing 55,000 gallons of radioactive water into the basement. Had a night watchman not stumbled upon the problem, another pipe would have also burst, causing, in Arnie’s words, “an incredibly severe radiological accident.”
For her part, Maggie often voices the more stridently antinuke sentiments of the pair — though she gets defensive when accused of any such bias. For example, during last week’s Vermont Law School event, Maggie bristled when VLS professor Donald Kreis described himself as the only one on the panel without an antinuke agenda. And, although Maggie admits she’s more comfortable behind the scenes, these days she’s in the Statehouse almost as often as is her husband.
The Gundersens remain harsh critics of the way Vermont Yankee and other Entergy nuke plants have been managed and operated, both on financial and safety grounds. And, with a track record of foreseeing problems that often came to pass, they’ve earned a professional reputation that makes it very difficult for industry officials to dismiss their concerns as ideologically driven. When a vacancy became available last year on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safety, Arnie’s application was endorsed by 57 environmental groups around the country. Curiously, though, after Arnie submitted his application in December, the NRC chose to reopen the application process.
The Gundersens’ successful record of anticipating nuclear plant problems begs the question: What is their next big concern about Vermont Yankee if the plant is ultimately relicensed?
Arnie doesn’t hesitate. “Net-positive suction,” he explains, launching into a teacher-like explanation of the principle of physics that, “like drinking soda through a straw,” keeps water circulating through the reactor to cool it down. According to Arnie, the principle of net-positive suction is so critical to the safety and reliability that it ranks number one among the 126 regulatory guides for nuclear reactors.
Prior to the uprate, “If the containment had a leak, you could still cool the reactor. You’d release some radiation but you wouldn’t have a China syndrome,” he says, using industry lingo for a total reactor-core meltdown. Now, he explains, if the containment has a leak, there wouldn’t be enough water pressure to cool the reactor.
The NRC was fully aware of this safety concern, he adds, but allowed Vermont Yankee to go ahead with the uprate anyway. Seven years ago, when Arnie first explained this problem to me, I asked how serious an ensuing problem could be. “Not as bad as Chernobyl,” he said at the time, “but worse than Three Mile Island.”
He adds, “That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Another day, another tritium-leak story. Vermont Yankee has dominated the news in recent months, owing to a perfect storm of factors: physical problems at the aging plant; a relicensing deadline; and the Vermont legislature’s unique opportunity to vote on the future of the state’s only nuclear facility.
Why should you care? Because every nuke plant, handled improperly, is a potential Chernobyl. Handled properly, nuke plants are touted as low-cost, low-carbon sources of energy.
Vermont Yankee’s affordable power prices, coupled with political inertia, have slowed the development of local renewable power sources. The economic recession has eroded Yankee’s decommissioning fund — the money VY’s parent company, Louisiana-based Entergy, is required to set aside to pay for the plant’s eventual dismantling. As if that weren’t enough to worry about, Entergy wants to create a spin-off company that would end up owning Yankee. Critics allege it would allow the nuke facility to declare bankruptcy, leaving Vermonters with the bill to clean up VY.
This week’s Vermont Yankee package aims to bring readers up to speed on a complicated issue that can’t be reduced to “Nuclear Energy for Dummies” — although Lauren Ober does explain the basic science in her story about Yankee’s hometown of Vernon. Juxtaposed profiles of federal whistleblower Arnie Gundersen and his arch nemesis, public service commissioner David O’Brien, reveal a tense behind-the-scenes conflict that has shaped state policy on Vermont Yankee for years.
In an expanded “Local Matters,” Shay Totten investigates the legal ramifications of shutting down Yankee and asks experts to predict what will power a post-nuke Vermont. Ken Picard examines the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s dual role of regulator and industry promoter. Andy Bromage looks at Entergy’s ongoing — and expensive — lobbying efforts.
Since nuclear contamination doesn’t recognize state borders, Vermont’s problem is spilling over into New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Totten gives a voice to Yankee’s downstream neighbors. They’d like to have a say in this, too.