A Second Lease on Half-life?
The dangers of the planned uprate of Vermont Yankee,
and the very real potential to devastate New England.
(This story appeared in the Montague Reporter, MA, in December 2003.)
keith harmon snow
Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant in Vernon, Vermont began operations in 1972, at the height of nuclear power plant construction in the United States. Now, 31 years later, Vermont Yankee has a new owner with a plan to increase power production at the aging plant. Striking a $20 million deal with Vermont’s Department of Public Service, Entergy -- the Lousiana-based corporation that bought the Vernon nuclear power plant for $180 million in 2002 -- appears poised to implement one of the largest power uprates in the industry.
The monies would be used by the state to clean up algae in Lake Champlain ($8 million), to cushion VT ratepayers against any power outages associated with the uprate ($4.5 million), and for emergency fuel assistance for low-income Vermont ratepayers.
With the state of Vermont poised to accept the $20 million (payoff) in exchange for approving Entergy’s plan to exceed the reactor’s original design rating of 540 megawatts, the proposal faces additional hearings before the Vermont Public Service Board next month (see sidebar). Entergy is seeking to increase the plant’s output to 650 megawatts.
Along with an increase in output power, Vermont Yankee’s 20% uprate would bring the risk of 34% more radioactivity being released in the event of an accident or a terrorist attack breaching containment at the plant. It also means a certain increase in high-level radioactive waste, and – through daily operations – more than a 25% increase in the emission of direct radiation to local communities, according to the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition (NEC).
The Vernon elementary school is located directly across the street from the reactor, at a distance of about 1000 yards.
What does the power uprate mean for the health and safety of communities within the radiation pathways and accident danger zones?
“If someone is claiming the plant is old and shouldn’t be uprated, the fact is that we’ve replaced many components and systems over the years to keep this a state-of-the-art plant,” says Entergy spokesman Robert Williams at Vermont Yankee. “We have a full staff of engineers on site whose only job is to track performance of systems and components… The plant and the design are in excellent shape.”
NEC’s Ray Shadis disagrees. “At the beginning of 2003, Vermont Yankee notified the NRC that one of the safety components on one of their valves was inoperable, that they had to shutdown the plant. Five days later they wrote the NRC that upon examination they didn’t have that safety feature at all. It’s a very complicated machine. They haven’t got a clue.”
Shadis, who recently served on a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel to assess that agency’s Reactor Oversight Process, sees Vermont Yankee as an imminent nuclear catastrophe. “It’s going to happen. At some point the United States will see another major accident, or two. It is as likely to be worse than it is to be less than Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. It is not a question of “if” -- but of when and where. That’s an absolute and we want to take Vermont Yankee out of that equation.”
With authorities in Vermont and Massachusetts issuing instructions to surrounding communities to stock up on potassium iodide tablets – to mitigate the effect of Iodine-131, which attacks the thyroid gland, and is just one of many radioactive isotopes that would be released in a loss of containment accident – people are asking questions.
Is the plant ‘safe’ as Entergy claims? Is the Vermont Public Service Board serving the public interest? And is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) a reliable regulatory body hostile to nuclear pollution and undue influence?
As early as 1955, the nuclear industry was already experiencing major technical failures. While noting the great urgency to “capitalize on any technological lead the U.S. may have,” in the race to harness the atom for domestic electricity, Rear Admiral H.G. Rickover in 1957 testified to Congress on the dearth of technical knowledge.
“Despite every design and operation precaution taken by us,” he told Congress, “we have experienced leaks in some of our steam generators… we had to spend considerable time and money on a brute-force approach, because there was no hope of obtaining an understanding of the fundamentals involved in a reasonable length of time.” [“Development, Growth and State of the Atomic Energy Industry,” Hearings Before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, 1957: p. 667]
A 1957 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated “the consequences of a very large reactor accident at a hypothetically small nuclear plant near a large city” at 43,000 injuries, 3,400 deaths and $7 billion in 1957 losses. Congress passed the “Gore Bill” of 1956, championed by then U.S. Senator Albert Gore (Sr.) of the pro-nuclear Gore dynasty. This became the Price Andersen Act -- reauthorized by Congress again in 2002 – shielding the industry from significant liability for any major nuclear accident. The 1989 Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Catastrophic Nuclear Power Accidents determined that private nuclear corporations would be unlikely to survive unless the federal government insured the industry against such “unexpected and unknown” potential liabilities as the Bhopal disaster (Union Carbide), Agent Orange (Dow) and the Dalkon Shield.
After 1957, nuclear weapons, ships and submarines proliferated. By 1972, as Vermont Yankee came online, some 118 subs and eight ships were on order, with 95 subs and four ships afloat. Yankee Atomic pioneered the “atoms-for-peace” experiment with its Rowe (MA) reactor by 1960. By 1963, four larger nuclear plants were ordered; seven in 1965; 20 in 1967; fourteen in 1968. By 1972 there were 162 nukes on order. Only 113 of these were completed. All of the 103 nukes still operating in the U.S. today employ technology of this era.
Former M.I.T. nuclear physicist and long-time industry consultant K. Uno Ingard attributes the problems with nuclear power to its ‘economy-of-scale’. “Engineers involved in designing these plants got their experience mainly from marine [steam] power plants where everything was relatively small,” he stated. “In essence, they merely scaled plants up from what they knew before.”
Problems identified by Rickover in 1957 remain unsolved or ignored today. Problems like reactor piping system failures, valve failures and tube cracking, issues imperative to the reactors’ safe operation. “Vermont Yankee is one of 37 GE Mark I Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) designs in the U.S.,” wrote the Nuclear Information and Research Service (NIRS). “Even basic questions about the reactor [radioactivity] containment design remain unanswered and its integrity in serious doubt.” [NIRS, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, 1997]
In 1972, even as Vermont Yankee went critical, Dr. Stephen Hanuaer, the top safety official at the Atomic Energy Commission (pre-NRC), recommended that the Mark I pressure suppression system be discontinued and any Mark I designs not be approved for construction. A 1985 NRC report analyzing the containment system concluded that “the Mark I failure within the first few hours following a core melt would appear rather likely.” In 1986 Harold Denton, the NRC’s top safety official, told an industry trade group that the Mark I had “something like a 90% probability of containment failure,” in the event of such an accident. Mark I reactor owners responded by jury-rigging a manual pressure relief valve, operated by, and contingent on, the men in the control room. [NIRS, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, 1997]
Volumes of government reports produced in the 1980’s and ‘90’s document the myriad technical concerns creating conditions for catastrophic failures in these nuclear plants – concerns like neutron bombardment; stress-corrosion cracking; reactor pressure vessel cracking, metal fatigue and embrittlement. [E.g. NUREG 1511, NUREG/CR-5939; NUREG/CR-6339; NUREG/CR-6087; GAO/RCED-97-14.]
In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that: “utilities operating at least 72 of the 113 domestic nuclear power plants have installed or are suspected of having received counterfeit and nonconforming products.” [Nuclear Safety and Health: Counterfeit and Substandard Products Are a Governmentwide Concern, GAO, RCED-91-6, October 1990.]
Through it all, experts claim, the industry has maximized profits, setting dangerous precedents like longer run times where ‘on-line maintenance’ disables safety systems for repair while the plant is running, and ‘in-service’ inspections, limited, by default, due to the reactor’s operation. If the Vermont Yankee uprate is approved, it will increase stresses on subsystems and components seriously compromised by age and age-related degradation.
“Significant circumferential cracking has been discovered at Vermont Yankee,” the NRC wrote (1996), in a report evaluating the threat of a meltdown due to reactor core shroud fracture. [Status Report: Intergranular Corrosion Cracking of BWR Core Shrouds and Other Internal Components, NUREG-1544, May 1996: p. xv]
“The reactor pressure vessel, the core shroud, condenser, feedwater and recirculation pumps -- all these major components have not been replaced,” says Ray Shadis. “Parts replaced over the last 31 years are also getting old. The engineering analyses for retrofits are not always as good as for the originals, and the original analyses weren’t that good to begin with.”
Entergy has an industry-wide reputation for pushing the envelope, Shadis adds, for cutting corners to maximize profits, while cutting safety margins. Pushing the envelope, Entergy, Exelon Corp. and Dominion Corp. have applied to the NRC for ‘Early Site Permits’ to build new reactors in the U.S.
The risks of in-service inspections during long periods of continuous operation were revealed by a recent near-accident at the Davis Besse plant in Ohio. In-service inspections missed the acid corrosion that had eaten through a six inch steel liner in the reactor pressure vessel. Discovered by chance during a delayed refueling outage in February of 2002, only 3/16ths of an inch of a bulging exterior steel liner, facing pressure of more than a ton per square inch, stood between a major loss of coolant catastrophe. Also discovered to be cracked were five of the 69 primary control rod drive mechanisms, the fundamental reaction suppression devices.
Indeed, in-service inspection requires that the redundant safety systems touted by industry as the ultimate security insurance – defense-in-depth – are disabled while the plant is up and running. Such facts are relevant to any discussions about power ‘uprates’ and are central to any issue of public health and safety in continued operation of aging nuclear plants.
“We do inspections during refueling outages,” says Entergy’s Robert Williams. “The reactor is in great shape, as well as the reactor internals. We’ve completed a design basis review, and kept all documentation up to date, and we’ve insured ourselves that documentation accurately reflects what exists in the plant… The uprate will get full review by the NRC and the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. The industry has learned from the importance of not becoming complacent in any aspect of organizational culture.”
“The NRC has a history of operating as a rogue agency, and in the service of the people they are supposed to be regulating,” says Shadis, who references an internal NRC poll showing that even NRC staff have little confidence in the NRC to oversee reactor safety.
On September 27th, 2003, Vermont Yankee experienced a leak in primary piping connected to the reactor vessel head. “It was a small steam leak inside the reactor building,” said Yankee’s Robert Williams. “Prior to that we had been generating electricity continuously for 335 days,” he said.
The plant was shut down, Williams said, the pressure on the system reduced, the leak repaired, and the radioactivity “was cleaned out.” Williams said that the leak was confined to the containment area of the reactor, that there was no release of radioactive material to the environment, no threat to public health and safety.
“In fact, there were two leaks,” said Ray Shadis. “There was a steam leak where the packing blew out of a valve and, a few days later, a coolant leak where a pump seal failed on restart. The surveillance on these components was poor; maintenance was also poor. As far as the radiation, you can’t ‘clean up’ a noble gas leak. You can flush or dilute or mix, but it goes into the environment.”
“It is apparent from NRC Inspection Reports that they don’t know what safety components they have or don’t have and they don’t know what electrical cables go where,” says Shadis. “Two years ago they had a team of technicians attempting to change a light bulb in the control room. One of them stuck a screwdriver in the wrong place and it scrammed [shutdown] the plant. It sounds funny, in a dark humor kind of way, but this is not something to be taken lightly.”
“There are tens-of-thousands of valves; tens-of-thousands of switches; tens-of-thousands of relays -- all waiting for the lethal combination of mechanical failure and human error. Dial up TMI [the Three Mile Island accident] just a notch, and it would destroy the entire natural resource base of Vermont. The dairy industry, agriculture, tourism – it would all be destroyed.”