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Vermont Yankee Radiation Contamination Levels Spike 

Published January 20, 2010 at 5:51 p.m.

  UPDATED at 9:30 p.m. (see below)

Tritium levels in water tested at Vermont Yankee spiked dramatically today, state health officials told legislative leaders.

While it's easy to joke about Vermont Yankee's "leak of the week," the revelations today about the striking rise in tritium contamination could spell considerable trouble for Entergy.

State health officials found tritium levels of one to two million picocuries per liter in water in an on-site trench. The Environmental Protection Agency's safe drinking water standard for tritium is  20,000 picocuries per liter; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires plant owners to report tritium levels found above 30,000 picocuries.

Immediately, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin called on the state health department to conduct on-site independent tests of the water at Vermont Yankee. 

“Since Vermonters have lost confidence in Entergy Louisiana’s credibility, the Speaker and I urge the Department of Health to immediately implement independent, verifiable testing,” said Senator Shumlin, who is also one of five Democrats vying to be the party's nominee for governor. “This independent testing is critical to ensure Vermonters that we are getting reliable information about this crisis.” 

Since the original discovery of tritium two weeks ago, the concentrations of the radioactive material have increased from 17,000 to 22,300 picocuries per liter in the first test well.  Yesterday, Vermont Yankee reported that a second test well was found to have 9400 picocuries per liter.

Health officials told legislative leaders today that a trench at the site had been tested and found to have tritium at 1 to 2 million picocuries per liter – many times the level deemed acceptable by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

The tests are being conducted by a contractor who is hired and paid by Entergy Louisiana. 

A spokesman for Vermont Yankee said the investigation is currently focusing on various buried pipes, plant pipe trenches and vaults made of concrete associated with the plant's radioactive waste processing building, the condensate storage tank and the advanced off-gas system and structures.

He called the newly-found levels "relatively high."

"The investigation of the concrete radwaste pipe trench, located approximately about eight to ten feet below grade, found standing water and a relatively high tritium level in the range of 721,000 to 2.1 million picocuries per liter," wrote VY spokesman Rob Williams in an email to reporters. "The water and the tritium content found in the 40-foot long concrete pipe trench is an important finding in the investigation of the source of the tritium found in the monitoring well. Engineers and technicians have not identified signs of pipe leakage at this point but will be performing further investigation of the piping there which is used intermittently. Also, there are additional monitoring wells that will be drilled in the vicinity and in other areas around the plant which should give further useful information to the investigators."

Speaker Smith said the ongoing problems continue to shake Vermonters' faith in Entergy.

“In my discussions with Vermonters I have found that Vermonters' confidence in Entergy Louisiana is shaken,” said Smith. “We share Vermonters' frustration and concern that the source of the leak has not been identified. We are doing everything in our power to find the source of the leak and [make sure] that the information supplied to Vermonters is accurate.”

In light of recent events where Entergy officials supplied both the Legislature’s Oversight Panel and the Department of Public Service with inaccurate information about the existence of underground piping, independent testing is more important than ever, Smith and Shumlin noted in a joint statement.

A five-member legislative oversight panel has been reconstituted and charged with helping determine just how many times Entergy misled the panel, outside consultants and lawmakers. They are to report back to the legislature by February 16. The House and Senate environment committees have been asked to provide support to the panel and potentially to hold hearings.

Of the five members, however, only three are able to be part of the new panel: Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer who has been critical of Vermont Yankee's operations; Peter Bradford, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, and Fred Sears, a nuclear scientist. Gundersen and Bradford were appointed by the legislature, while Sears was named by the panel, along with David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Lochbaum is unable to join the committee. The governor's appointee to the committee, William Sherman, has said he is not interested in serving again, Gundersen told Seven Days.

The panel will meet for the first time on Monday in a closed-door meeting. Bradford, who is the panel's chairman, has asked the governor if he would like to appoint a new member. If the governor does appoint someone, it's likely the panel will try to add more members, too, said Gundersen.

Time, noted Gundersen, is of the essence, given the legislative deadline and the growing concern about tritium levels at Vermont Yankee.

The original panel appointment process dragged on for months and was complicated by one member's sudden death. At the time, too, key Department of Public Service staff derided the appointments of Gundersen and Bradford, essentially calling the pair anti-nuke zealots.

While the state legislative panel gets situated, the NRC is also reviewing its correspondence with Entergy, said a spokesman, as requested by Vermont's congressional delegation.

"Like every other nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee has miles of piping. The issue here is whether they have underground or buried piping that carries radioactive fluids. Clearly, they do," said Neil Sheehan, the spokesman for NRC Region 1. "For example, there is piping containing radioactive liquid that runs between the Condensate Storage Tank and the condenser building. However, the vast majority of underground piping at the plant is apparently in concrete vaults, which allow access for inspection. We are now working to better understand exactly what Entergy told us about such piping during our license renewal reviews for Vermont Yankee."

Gundersen said if the leak is from the storage tank, so much water flows through it daily that Vermont Yankee could leak out 10,000 gallons and barely notice. If so, however, it's likely that the radioactive contamination could be confined to tritium.

Entergy officials are continuing to monitor the groundwater and are drilling more wells to determine both the source and the volume of the leak.

Williams told reporters in an email yesterday that seven additional testing wells would be drilled.

"Final preparations are underway for sinking seven more monitoring wells at the plant site," Williams wrote. "As the work progresses with the oversight of state and federal regulators, I want to repeat: The existence of tritium in such low levels does not present a risk to public health or safety whatsoever. And, there has been no elevated tritium level found in any drinking water well samples or in Connecticut River water. "

Earlier today, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Vermont League of Conservation Voters voiced concern about Vermont Yankee's newest ad campaign — I Am VY — which is using employees to promote the plant's relicensure. They say the ads are misleading in that they portray Entergy as the arbiter of truth when it comes to the plant's safety and reliability.

VPIRG is calling on Attorney General Bill Sorrell to investigate the ad campaign and determine if it violates the state's consumer fraud laws — namely if the ads touting the "truth" about Vermont Yankee can be reliably presented by Entergy given its past problems with telling lawmakers and regulators a straight story.

In 2008, VPIRG lodged a similar complaint, and Sorrell found that some of VY's ads at the time did make false claims about nuclear power having "zero fuel emissions."

"Entergy's new ad campaign is just as deceptive," said James Moore, a policy advocate with VPIRG. "Entergy's version of the truth seems to shift with the wind as deceptions are uncovered."

Entergy may not have much wiggle room left, though. Next week the Vermont Public Service Board will hold a hearing of arguments by state regulators and citizen groups about reopening the case related to Vermont Yankee's request to operate beyond 2012.

The New England Coalition — which has fought Entergy's attempt to relicense the plant as well as boost power — believes Entergy's misstatements about underground piping raise questions about the accuracy of projected decommissioning cost, and about the credibility of Entergy witnesses in general.
Decommissioning costs are driven, said NEC Consultant Raymond Shadis, more by the extent and type of radiological contamination than by any other single factor.

Working with Entergy managers and specialists, Shadis was directly involved on a continuing basis in assuring the quality of radiological surveys and site remediation in the seven-year-long (1997-2005) Maine Yankee decommissioning.

"The decommissioning costs were assessed based on a plant that didn't have underground pipes. Now, the amount of money to remove those pipes is one thing," said NEC's attorney Jared Margolis. "But now that we know they're leaking, there's also the amount of money and the time that it's going to take to remediate the contaminated soils from those leaks. And that's information the board needs to have to understand if the decommissioning funds are adequate and exactly what the decommissioning costs are going to be."
NEC has also asked the PSB to consider, given the seriousness of Entergy’s misrepresentations, the levy of sanctions. In 2003, the PSB fined Entergy $50,000 for withholding information from NEC and flouting PSB rules.

* * * UPDATE * * *

I spoke with William Irwin, the state's radiological health chief, about an hour ago and he said the state Health Department is prepared to ramp up its own analyzing of water samples on Vermont Yankee property, as well as in the Connecticut River.

Irwin said they are gathering water samples from directly at the discharge point from Vermont Yankee into the Connecticut River, as well as a calm site downstream (the "Vernon pool") as well as then a further downstream point at a riverside farm. So far, tritium has not shown up in the samples. Nor, has tritium been found across the street at the Vernon Elementary School.

Irwin will increase the frequency, and volume, of water samples it analyzes as it steps up its investigation and monitoring of the tritium leak. The Health Department is not using an outside contractor to test the water samples, but rather its own staff and lab.

"We are going to do everything we can to provide Vermonters with the confidence that the numbers being reported there are unbiased, objective and reliable," said Irwin. "We've already started conducting more tests and plan to increase the frequency which we report the findings as well as the number of samples we are analyzing."

Irwin said it was too early to think they've found the source of the tritium leak in the trench, and that it could take days, possibly weeks, to identify the exact source.

"They are simultaneously examining every manhole, pipe chase, electrical chase and every compartment that could possibly contain water, and frankly there are a fairly large number of places that could be the source," said Irwin. "We're really early on in the investigation."

He said the condensate storage tank was checked early on in the investigation, and it appears to not be the source of the leak.  That said, Irwin noted, it is still being examined.

Irwin said in each of the seven boiling water reactors where tritium leaks have occurred, each has been from a different source.

To cover the costs of the beefed up state probe, Irwin expects to dip into the state's Radiological Emergency Response Plan Fund to cover the costs, with an expectation that the money will be replenished at a later date. Entergy is the sole source of this fund. The health department receives about $340,000 annually for environmental monitoring and emergency preparedness. Other state agencies also receive money from the fund.

One or more images has been removed from this article. For further information, contact [email protected].
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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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