States’ rights and the NRC

By Meredith Angwin

View from VermontIn March, Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant received a 20-year license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the NRC extension ends in 2032. Vermont’s legislature, however, voted last year to shut down the plant in 2012, when its state certificate runs out.

Last week, to keep the plant running, Entergy sued the State of Vermont in federal court. There are many contentions in the Entergy lawsuit. One of the most important arguments is that Vermont was attempting to judge plant safety, and therefore pre-empting the NRC’s federal role in safety assessments for nuclear plants.

Entergy also filed for an injunction to prevent the state from shutting down the plant while the legal process proceeds.

Pre-emption of the NRC

Vermont State House

A while back, the Vermont legislature set up a state-authorized “Public Oversight Panel” (POP) to make a technical determination on whether Vermont Yankee should continue to run or not. Since safety and radiological issues are the responsibility of the NRC, the POP supposedly dealt only with “reliability” issues. The panel called its report a Comprehensive Reliability Assessment.

The panel consisted of four part-time people, one of whom was a lawyer, not an engineer. (For a while, there were five members of the panel, but membership has varied.) The panel also had support from Nuclear Safety Associates (NSA), a nuclear consulting group that prepared a report for the POP and legislature.

After the POP and the NSA had submitted their reports to the state, Vermont Yankee’s tritium leak was discovered. The legislature then reconvened the panel for another investigation. The tritium leak was never a reliability issue: it never caused the plant to go off-line, for example. Still, the legislature wanted an investigation. So, the POP met again, wrote another report, and was particularly concerned with whether the plant had given it incorrect information about plant piping.

Reliability or safety?

Tritium

The POP pretended to assess reliability, but in my opinion, however, it focused on safety. The POP quickly abandoned investigating service water issues (which can actually lead to reliability problems) to focus on the sexier work of tritium leaks, strontium in soil near the plant, piping diagrams, backlog of repairs, and “safety culture” assessments. My blog posts at the time were about the search for the piping diagrams. There also was a legal report on who-knew-what about the piping diagrams.

While the POP worked, the plant had a breaker-to-breaker 531-day run and became one of the most high-performing plants in the Entergy fleet. The POP gives a sentence to this “significant achievement” in its report. It doesn’t let it affect its “reliability” assessment much.

The safety assessment

In my opinion, the POP wasn’t doing a reliability assessment. The POP’s part-timers attempted to investigate all the things that the NRC sends teams of its own people to inspect, including safety culture, equipment aging process planning, etc. Then, the POP complained that the plant didn’t give it enough information, gave it wrong information once about piping, and that it didn’t have time to do a really good job.

Gundersen

Well, what did the panel expect? The legislature asked three engineers and a lawyer (Arnie Gundersen, William Sherman, C. Frederick Sears, and Peter Bradford) to do, in a few months of part-time, highly-paid work ($300/hour), what teams of NRC inspectors spend  person-years doing, every year.

Side note: There was a bit of wink-wink, nod-nod about this term “reliability.”  I sat in several hearings where a Vermont senator or representative would talk about the dangers the tritium leaks posed to the people of Vermont. Then the legislator would smile at the audience and remind them that “we can’t use the s-word (safety).”

The NRC safety assessment process

I decided I needed to know a bit more about the NRC process, so I emailed Diane Screnci, senior public affairs officer at the local branch of the NRC. I asked her how many person-years of inspections and related oversight the NRC did, per plant per year. She told me that each plant had at least two full-time inspectors assigned to it, as well as other NRC staff. Each plant has about 5000 person-hours per year of NRC inspections. At somewhat less than 2000 hours per person per year, that is between two and three person-years of inspection per plant.

Vermont was not going to be able to do an NRC-level inspection with the POP staff. In the long run, the POP was exactly what it was meant to be: a political tool of almost no technical credibility. The POP was a group of part-timers and a lawyer, attempting to do a safety inspection of a nuclear plant.

Individually, the panel members had varying degrees of credibility. As a panel, it had none. I am not attacking their backgrounds, though why a lawyer was on this panel remains a bit of a puzzle.

Appreciation for the NRC

Watching the POP at work, it was clear to me why the NRC has jurisdiction, and why nuclear regulation cannot be a state privilege. Nuclear energy cannot be regulated by a group of people who may be eager to please their legislative employers. There need to be objective criteria, assessed by full-time experts, in order to keep a plant working well.

Having the internal workings of the plant doubly-assessed, by a group of people chosen politically, could get in the way of plant operations. It could even possibly degrade safety. Part-time inspectors with political agendas? This is not the same as having the Occupational Safety and Health Administration come to the plant. Trained OSHA inspectors go to many industrial facilities.

The NRC catches a lot of guff in the nuclear industry: The NRC is slow to act. The NRC is an expensive, overgrown bureaucracy. The NRC is headed by political appointees.

But still, down in the trenches at the inspection level, the NRC knows what it is doing. The inspectors are trained and professional. They don’t have political agendas. They won’t accept a cup of coffee from the people they are inspecting.

After watching the POP activities, it is clear to me that nuclear regulation is the business of the federal government. The Atomic Energy Act was the precursor of the NRC, and kept the nuclear safety regulation at the federal level of the government. That is how it must remain.

Thank you, NRC, for your day-to-day professionalism.

____________________________________________________

Angwin

Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents. Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.

Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

7 thoughts on “States’ rights and the NRC

  1. Bill Eaton

    The continued struggle between Entergy and VY opponents is replete with short sighted objectives and decisions across the board. It is alas further hampered in the debate by the popular twins of Political Correctness (Entergy’s downfall in many instances) and Grandstanding (the favorite stance of Vermont politicians). The tritium leaks are not a safety issue of any magnitude whatsoever. The senior level individuals removed from their positions due to errors in describing plant configuration and related risk did not attempt to mislead or lie about the potential for underground piping leakage, they were guilty of being too analytical and technical in their outlook, complicated by a lack of appreciation for the political atmosphere in Vermont. How that happened after all these years is in itself a puzzle. As far as the true objectives of the intervenors and anti-nukes up there, they deserve to face the real issue of reliability that would come to the grid if the baseline support of the VY station was to be taken away. Criticism of the NRC as slow, bureaucratic and expensive is a comfortable place to go with any federal agency. In years of experience with EPRI and other large and complex technical organizations I could cite numerous cases where EPRI too was slow, bureaucratic and expensive. That’s not to say that at the end of the day the right work is not getting done. It is, only very slowly and often by playing in the opponents game and with his rules.

  2. Tom Murphy

    Thank you for taking the time to reply and teaching me that I need to do a better job explaining my thoughts.

    Part of the “underground piping” issue and part of the “POP board confusing safety with reliability’ issue were caused by poorly defined terms. You can not have clear communication if everyone has different ideas about the terms mean.

    With her last essay question, my science teacher was reminding us that science is constantly evolving, that ideas we take to be facts today (LNT model for example ?) may be proven wring tomorrow, and, at its core, science is developing a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, and the using those result to develop a thesis. The items we consider scientific facts are the concepts we develop to explain the consist results of repeatable experiments.

  3. Meredith Angwin

    Tom

    Sorry, but the center of science is not “definitions”, no matter what your early teacher taught you. (I am sure she was a very good teacher, however!) Definitions are important in science, as they are in law. However, at the center, neither science nor law is all about a dictionary.

    In science, the central point of the scientific method is about forming a testable hypothesis, testing it, and either confirming or changing it based on the results. Lather and repeat for over a hundred years in many countries, and the hypotheses will improve. The body of knowledge based on this method is usually called science.

    (I said “tests” because sometimes the test is an experiment, and sometimes it is the analysis of an observation or something like that.)

    Okay. First you asserted that science is about definitions (it isn’t, though definitions are often very helpful). Next, you claim that since science is about definitions, if two technologists don’t agree on the definition, they are being disingenuous. Heavens! You are being disingenuous!

    Indeed, some terms in science are as you describe them. Certain terms such as “a gram” or “R, the gas constant” will be the same world-over. The terms you quote: “Safety,” “reliability” “underground” are not that sort of term, and will always need to be interpreted contextually. It is disingenuous to claim that if two technologists say them, they should always mean the same thing. In other words, Tom, you know better!

  4. Tom Buchanan

    The future reliability of the VY station is important to the state of Vermont because the state is considering relying on the plant for a large part in in-state power production for as long as 20 years. It’s important to asses not whether the plant has been reliable in the past, but whether it is being maintained and operated in a way that will yield future reliability.

    The Pubic Oversight Panel (POOP) did a reasonable job of assessing the condition of the VY station in the original report (supported by the extensive work of NSA, a large team of nuclear professionals), and identified a number of serious concerns that could affect the future reliability of the plant. The leak of tritiated water from at least three pipes over a period as long as two years, coupled with a leaking underground containment structure, poor quality legacy construction, and inadequate monitoring, cast significant doubt on the overall operation of the plant, the oversight provided by the operational staff, and the approach of senior managers.

    When the POP issued the second report they acknowledged the VY Station had been reliable, but raised questions about the future. The last two paragraphs identify strengths and telegraph the potential for problems, and also make clear that Entergy can fix those problems if it chooses to:

    “…No report written today can state conclusively that Vermont Yankee will or will not be operated reliably for an additional 20 years. As noted earlier, the Panel acknowledges that Vermont Yankee recently completed 531 days of uninterrupted operation, which in itself is a significant achievement.

    However the Panel also recognizes several key management concerns that have not been rectified or addressed. Moreover, it appears that some of these broad concerns may in fact be as persistent in 2010 as in 2009. Entergy cannot operate VY reliably for an additional 20 years unless it successfully reestablishes a corporate culture where its individual employees and the organization as a whole have a questioning attitude, and where adequate resources are consistently spent on non-safety systems.”

    The entire Supplemental POP report can be found at: http://publicservice.vermont.gov/nuclear/Supplemental%20Report%20of%20the%20Public%20Oversight%20Panel.pdf

  5. Tom Murphy

    @ Brian, thank you for your reply. I think it illustrates my main point. Terms needs to be fully defined.
    I didn’t do I good enough job in my defination and rightly found a loophole in it.

    As to State Rights, I always associated that term with the Civil War and the South’s “Lost Cause” so to me that term is a poor way of framing the legitmate question of whether the State of Vermont can prevent YV from operating past 2012.

  6. Brian Mays

    Tom Murphy:

    IMO the term underground should have been understood as any piping system that could cause a leak to the soil.

    So, if I have, say, a pipe that is suspended 50 feet above the ground, but with nothing under it, so that any leak would go directly to the soil, does that count as an “underground” pipe?

    What about pipes in an above-ground building with some cracks in the floor? Leaks in these pipes could reach the soil through those cracks. Are they “underground” pipes?

    Finally the use of the term “States Rights” has such a negative connotation it is almost inflammatory.

    Is that because you don’t believe that any rights should be reserved for the states? I find your reaction to be somewhat bizarre, or perhaps you feel that “States Rights” should never be applied to anything associated with something called “Yankee.” ;-)

  7. Tom Murphy

    This post reminded me of my High School Science Teacher. She taught us biology, chemistry, and physics. She would require us to define any terms we intended to use when we answered her essay questions. We quickly learned that correct answers consisted of a series of definitions followed by a few simple sentences. I still remember her final essay question, “Everything you learned in my class may be proven wrong by, and except for, the Scientific Method. Explain.” She was teaching us a way of thinking rather than a set of facts.

    IMO reliability has a very specific meaning in terms of electrical power generation. For someone with a technical degree to interpret reliability as safety seems disingenuous.

    IMO the term underground should have been understood as any piping system that could cause a leak to the soil. For someone with a technical degree in power generation to interpret underground as only those pipes with direct contact with the soil seems disingenuous.

    In both cases the failure to fully define terms led to ambiguity. The resulting miscommunication caused distrust and speculation of ulterior motives.

    Finally the use of the term “States Rights” has such a negative connotation it is almost inflammatory.

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