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June 11, 2009

Senator Shumlin: On the Nuclear Offensive - *UPDATED*

SEE UPDATE BELOW - Vermont Yankee spokesman takes exception to the hiring of Arnie Gunderse, deeming it "unwarranted."

With the dust barely settled from the recently concluded legislative session, at least one lawmaker is already looking toward the next session.

Yesterday, Senate President Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) announced to the Douglas administration that the legislature was hiring nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen to keep watch on the aging Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Gundersen was selected last year by Shumlin to sit on the Public Oversight Panel, which is charged with overseeing a reliability assessment of Vermont Yankee.

Lawmakers are likely to take an up or down vote on whether to give Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee and Entergy Nuclear Operations the OK to keep operating VY beyond its scheduled March 12, 2012, shutdown date.

In his letter to Gundersen, Shumlin noted the nuke expert's skills were needed because, "With the Public Oversight Panel having completed its work, there is currently no one monitoring whether or not ENVY is making any progress toward meeting the requirements established by the NSA and the Oversight Panel."

Gundersen is being asked to spend three days per month to monitor ENVY's progress. His time will be billed to Entergy, not taxpayers. That was the arrangement set out under Act 189 that created the Oversight Panel.

"The legislature needs assurance that, before the start of the 2010 session, adequate progress is made to meet the goals set by NSA and the Oversight Panel," Shumlin noted to Gundersen.

Gundersen accepted Shumlin's offer and said this week's leak in the condenser was foreseen by the panel.

In an email response to the senator, Gundersen said, "As you are aware, the Oversight Panel found critical issues which must be overcome quickly if ENVY is to be maintained reliably.  The recent discovery of further condenser tube degradation shows just how prescient the panel's report is and how important the implementation of our recommended modifications and management changes is to the continued reliability of ENVY."

The hire was news to top officials at the Department of Public Service (DPS), who claim Shumlin's statement about nobody keeping watch isn't entirely accurate. Go figure.

"He may not be aware that the DPS has been working on this for months. It also was the subject of our testimony in front of the Public Service Board ... in which our internal staff and consultant witnesses all testified that a condition of any [certificate of public good] be that ENVY has to fulfill the recommendations of the Comprehensive Reliability Assessment and Oversight Panel reports," said Sarah Hofmann, DPS' director of public advocacy.

Hofmann said DPS and its own "expert consultants" will ensure all recommendations are effectively carried out.

"The DPS plans to have consultants on board who can bring in subject matter experts as needed. No one engineer can know everything about all the technical detail, so we plan to be able to bring people in through our consultants as needed," she said.

Hofmann did not know if the state will ask to have its own experts, or other panel members, assist Gundersen.

Douglas officials, it should be noted, took issue with Gundersen's appointment last year, with DPS spokesman Steve Wark, and others, claiming Gundersen, and the other legislative appointee Peter Bradford, were "biased" against nuclear power. Bradford once sat on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Gundersen worked for the industry for years.

So, is Gundersen biased — or clairvoyant? As I noted last July, he predicted that after VY boosted its power output,  the cooling towers would weaken, and  additional cracks would be found in the reactor’s steam dryer. Both proved true. He even predicted there might be a shortfall in the decommissioning fund. Yep, that happened, too. And, as noted in today's Brattleboro Reformer, Gundersen even predicted problems in the plant's condenser that is the focus of a recent leak.

Yeesh. One has to wonder if he's ever thought of playing Powerball.

Leaks aren't the only problems related to Vermont Yankee. The Rutland Herald has an excellent story today about the communication snafus experienced by emergency officials during a mock drill.

Glad it was a test, and only a test. Just sayin'.

UPDATED - Friday, June 12 (2:45 PM)

In his weekly email update to the media late Thursday, VY spokesman Rob Williams took exception to Shumlin's hiring of Gundersen, calling such additional oversight "unwarranted."

Just last week during hearings before the Public Service Board, Entergy VY discussed the approach already underway to address a series of recommendations designed to improve the plant's reliability. Those recommendations were made by the oversight panel and an independent consultant.

"It was a surprise, therefore, to hear, via our hometown newspaper, that there was a suggestion in Montpelier to have a member of the oversight panel reactivated for yet another layer of review as the recommendations are implemented," said Williams in his statement.

"We have always said that the legislature has an important role in license renewal, but adding additional layers, in an already complex process, sounds to us like unnecessary second guessing of the Department of Public Service," he added. "Yet another layer is unwarranted. There, I said it. Unwarranted."

Williams said the approach discussed before the PSB is based on the existing inspection agreement with the Public Service Department which allows the state's nuclear engineer and consultants access to the plant, its people, and information.

"We also meet regularly with the Public Service Department and its consultants to provide a detailed status on the recommendations. It seems to us, that through this process, the state of Vermont already has a clear and transparent view of our progress on the recommendations of these teams," said WIlliams.

Williams also noted that the VY decommissioning trust fund market value was $383.9 million at the end of May, a recapture of nearly $40 million in value in roughly six months.

Did Gunderson also predict that after every 4 or 5 sunny days in Vermont, we'd have rain? Yeah, I guess he is a god. Gimme a break.

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