Nuclear Engineer Says He Alerted State About Yankee Pipes Last Summer

01/22/10 5:51PM By John Dillon
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AP File Photo/Toby Talbot
(Host) State officials reacted strongly last week when Vermont Yankee admitted it had underground pipes that could leak radioactivity.

But the news should not have come as a complete surprise. A nuclear engineer who advises the legislature says he alerted the state last summer and fall about the potential problems with the underground pipes.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Arnie Gundersen is a nuclear engineer who works as a consultant for the Legislature to keep track of Vermont Yankee issues.

Gundersen also serves on a Public Oversight Panel that reviewed Yankee's reliability to operate for another 20 years. The oversight panel asked Yankee if it had underground pipes that could leak - and plant officials repeatedly said no.

That information turned out not to be true. Yankee disclosed last week that it has underground pipes - and that the pipes could be the source of radioactive tritium found in a groundwater monitoring well 30 feet from the Connecticut River.

But Gundersen says that last summer he discovered documents that challenged the accuracy of Yankee's statements.

And he says he alerted the state Department of Public Service several times about his concerns.

(Gundersen) "I wrote to them back in early August. And I said something's wrong, we have underground pipes that we haven't been told about. And there was about four or five emails. And then they got Entergy involved. And Entergy said no, there are no underground pipes. And the quote is `this issue is closed.' And the department seems to believe Entergy."

(Dillon) And then in October, Gundersen prepared a report for the Legislature that highlighted the pipe issue. He told lawmakers he was surprised to learn that Yankee does have underground pipes that are contaminated with radioactive materials. Here's what he said in October to a legislative committee.

(Gundersen) We got the wrong information, but I did want to let the Legislature know that we gave you the wrong information. We said there was no underground pipe that was contaminated, and in fact there is. 

(Dillon) At the time, Yankee brushed off his testimony. And Gundersen now questions why the state Department of Public Service - which represents consumers - did not react more swiftly to his October report.

(Gundersen) They had all the information they needed back in August, and certainly by October, to go back to the Public Service Board, and say they had been misled.

(Dillon) Flash forward to last week. Entergy discloses it does have pipes that could be leaking. The Department of Public Service reacts strongly. The Department says it may seek financial sanctions against the company. And it says the Public Service Board - which is reviewing Yankee's request to operate for another 20 years --  may need to re-examine the pipe issue.

Public Service Commissioner David O'Brien says he's not sure if Gundersen's information was clear at the time.

(O'Brien) "To my knowledge, Mr. Gundersen never came forward and said there are underground pipes carrying radionuclides, and here's the information that clearly supports that. I'm not aware of that, because then this would have all come up six months ago."

(Dillon) Entergy Vermont Yankee, meanwhile, says it has named an independent counsel to conduct an investigation, and get to the bottom of who said what and when.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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