By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau – Published: February 11, 2010
MONTPELIER – The plume of tritium leaking from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is suspected of being 35 feet deep, 200 feet wide and 400 feet long, according to the Legislature’s nuclear expert.
Arnie Gundersen, a member of the Vermont Legislature’s Public Oversight Panel for Vermont Yankee, told lawmakers Wednesday morning the quickest way to stop the tritium leak before finding its origin would be for the reactor to shut down.
Gundersen said that move would likely cost Entergy, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, about $1 million a day in electricity sales.
“If the plant shuts down, the tritium leak stops,” Gunderson told members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee at the Statehouse Wednesday. “It would take years for the tritium to move off-site, but you would not be adding anything to it if the plant shut down.”
Entergy officials have been struggling for weeks to find the cause of the tritium in nearby groundwater, believed to be caused by leaking underground pipes at the Vernon reactor. State officials now say they believe that tritium has leaked into the nearby Connecticut River.
Rob Williams, spokesperson for Vermont Yankee, said the plant’s continued operation helps them locate the source of the leak. He added that they would “shut down if it was necessary to protect public or worker health and safety or if it could aid the investigation.”
The revelation that the plant is leaking the radioactive isotope – coupled with allegations that Entergy officials misled the state about the existence of those underground pipes – has threatened the plant’s long-term future.
“It’s obvious that tritium is now in the river,” Gundersen told lawmakers, adding that testing for levels in that water is difficult right now because of the winter weather.
Gundersen again said he believes the source of the tritium leak is Vermont Yankee’s off-gas system – underground pipes that use steam from the reactor to carry out hydrogen and oxygen molecules that were separated in the plant’s condenser.
He said that steam would contain tritium, although he added that “we won’t know for sure until we find the leak.” But he stressed that officials should push Entergy to clean-up the tritium contamination from its own funds and not the decommissioning trust fund.
Gundersen estimated that it would cost about $10 million to clean up a contaminated area that is the size of a single football field and about 10 feet deep. It now appears that the contamination at Vermont Yankee is larger than that.
“This should not a decommissioning cost,” he told lawmakers. “This should come from the operating budget. The decommissioning funds are for the dismantling of the plant.”
Sen. Margaret “Peg” Flory, R-Rutland, questioned why no one realized sooner that Vermont Yankee did have underground radioactive pipes. Any blueprints of the plant from when it was constructed in 1972 should show these pipes, she said.
“What I’ve been struggling with is if these are essential parts of a nuclear power plant it would seem to be obvious that everyone knew there had to be something somewhere,” she said.
Gundersen said the Oversight Panel was shut out from directly interviewing Vermont Yankee officials and had to rely on information collected by the consulting firm hired by the Douglas administration. Those consultants and the Vermont Department of Public Service stressed that they had asked about the pipes and were told they didn’t exist, he said.
Gundersen said he does not want to attach a motive to why Entergy officials gave the state bad information. But he said it is clear there were more than just one or two bad apples in the company, noting that at least 12 officials with Entergy supplied wrong information in what he called an “organizational cancer.”
He also faulted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for allowing nuclear power plants to voluntarily start tritium monitoring programs after the radioactive isotope began showing up at other plants across the country. If it wasn’t for this leak at Vermont Yankee, only one of these underground pipes would be tested before 2012, he said.
“Entergy is no better or worse than the rest of the industry,” Gundersen said. “They just don’t have their act together when it comes to these underground pipes.”