Judges question Yankee review

July 25, 2008
By Susan Smallheer Rutland Herald

NEWFANE — Judges from the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board renewed their questioning of staff from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Entergy Nuclear Thursday on just how effective its computer model was in determining the effects of aging in the plant's piping.

The three judges also had sharp words for the NRC staff about who was really in charge of its re-licensing review, at one point uttering the infamous words, "Where is the beef?"

Alex Karlin, chairman of the three-judge panel, even compared the NRC's review process to a matruska doll, a set of nested Russian toys, where you open one doll, and find inside a successively smaller and smaller but identical doll, only to find nothing at the center.

The computer model, called ChecWorks, would be better if it were updated regularly with recent data, James Fitzpatrick, a former Entergy Nuclear engineer admitted under questioning from the judges.

Fitzpatrick, one of Entergy's experts, said he had recommended ChecWorks be updated after every refueling outage to his Entergy superiors, but that it was a matter of "resources" and hadn't been done.

The program helps pinpoint problem areas in a reactor's piping, and it was devised after a big explosion at the Surry nuclear plant in Virginia in 1986 that killed four people, according to Jeffrey Horowitz, a nuclear scientist for Entergy.

"If we took ChecWorks away from you, would it be a major disaster?" asked William Reed, an ASLB judge and engineer.

Fitzpatrick answered no.

The New England Coalition maintains that the computer program is outdated, outmoded and inadequate when it comes to predicting and thus preventing piping problems.

Joram Hopenfeld, the main expert for the New England Coalition, himself a former NRC nuclear scientist, said ChecWorks relied on too little data, and that at least 15 years of data were needed to make accurate and reliable calculations.

Earlier this week, the hearings dealt with the issues of how Entergy Nuclear was dealing with the problems of metal fatigue in feedwater nozzles and stress cracking in the steam dryer.

The NRC staff has already recommended that Entergy Nuclear get a 20-year extension for Vermont Yankee, but the final federal say rests with the panel in Newfane, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself.

The judges throughout the four-day hearing had repeatedly raised questions about how the NRC staff was overseeing the re-licensing process, and whether it had gotten real "commitments" from Entergy Nuclear over promised work or tests.

Two years ago, the New England Coalition, an anti-nuclear group based in Brattleboro, had filed seven "contentions" (questions) about the re-licensing of the Vermont reactor.

Of those seven, only three survived: questions about metal fatigue, the condition of the plant's steam dryer, and Entergy's plans for predicting and monitoring piping corrosion. The Vermont Department of Public Service adopted the coalition's conditions, saying it thought the issues were important and needed to be resolved.

Under the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board protocol, only the judges could ask questions of the panel of experts and the lawyers for the New England Coalition, Entergy and the NRC had to remain silent. Later, after the judges were finished, the lawyers would submit followup questions in writing to the judges, who could use those questions or not.

Raymond Shadis, the technical adviser for the New England Coalition, said he thought the judges were rude to his main expert witness, Hopenfeld, a Polish-born, Israeli-raised nuclear expert who holds several patents in the field.

More than once, the two engineers on the panel chided Hopenfeld for giving overly lengthy answers.

The four-day hearing concluded late Thursday afternoon, and Karlin immediately rejected a request for additional time for summary briefs from the attorneys involved, saying if anything he wanted to move up the timetable and get an answer out as soon as possible.

The panel came to Vermont on Monday to take testimony and question expert witnesses on three remaining issues on whether Entergy Nuclear can get a 20-year license extension for the 36-year-old Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon.

In addition to dozens of lawyers and nuclear engineers and experts, about a dozen citizens attended all the hearings, which often dealt with the minutia of nuclear power.

"The bottom line is that the programs that we have designed to ensure proper assessment and aging management of plant components and structures when we move into the license renewal period are based on well-established nuclear industry expertise and best practices," Entergy spokesman Robert Williams said after the hearing.

Diane Screnci, spokeswoman for the NRC, said the ASLB had held hearings on just two other nuclear re-licensing cases — Oyster Creek in New Jersey and Pilgrim in Massaschusetts.

Screnci said the ASLB sided with the company in the Oyster Creek case, and it is on appeal before the full Nuclear Regulatory Commission with the key issue over fatigue cracking in the feedwater nozzles, which was also raised in the Vermont Yankee case.

A decision in the Pilgrim case, heard in April, is still pending, she said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at susan.smallheer@rutlandherald.com.