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Vermont Yankee Plant Controversy: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Keeps Information From Public

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VERMONT YANKEE PLANT
The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on the banks of the Connecticut River in Vernon, Vt. is seen on Monday April 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Jason R. Henske) | AP

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- When a nuclear watchdog group asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a study on leaks of radioactive water at the Vermont Yankee plant, it was told the NRC had seen the report but had never officially taken custody of it – so it wasn't public.

Critics say it's a style of communication between regulator and regulated that cuts out the public and even state regulators trying to track leaks of tritium, a radioactive form of water linked with cancer when ingested in high amounts.

An NRC spokeswoman confirmed the agency routinely sees industry reports that it does not share on its public web site.

"We don't take possession of them so you can't get them from us," said Diane Screnci, spokeswoman in the NRC's Northeast regional office.

The fight comes as the NRC comes under heightened scrutiny for what its critics say is too much coziness with the industry it oversees, and is part of what Michel Keegan of the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes called a pattern of making public access to information more difficult.

An already difficult-to-navigate NRC online documents service recently was redesigned and became more so, Keegan said. The NRC uses company claims of proprietary information, security concerns and exceptions to limit access, he added. The agency also notes that the industry is sharing information with it voluntarily.

"The NRC hides behind this," Keegan added.

At Vermont Yankee, the battle is even more pitched than in most places. The governor and Legislature are pushing to shut the plant down when its initial 40-year license expires next March. They cite the recent tritium leaks and misstatements by company executives – Vermont's attorney general announced Thursday the company won't be prosecuted for perjury – as reasons Vermont should get done with nuclear power.

Plant owner Entergy Corp. says the Vernon reactor is safe and reliable. It is suing in federal court, saying the state's efforts to shut down Vermont Yankee are pre-empted by federal law.

Raymond Shadis of the nuclear watchdog group New England Coalition said the NRC, which renewed Vermont Yankee's federal license in March, is making regulatory decisions based on information the public doesn't get to see. "It's our position that this should be open to the light of public scrutiny," he said.

The issue came to light June 22, when officials from the NRC's regional headquarters in Pennsylvania traveled to Brattleboro for a public meeting designed as a review of the agency's annual report card for the Vernon reactor.

According to a filing by Shadis' group with the state Public Service Board, NRC health physicist James Noggle told the audience that significant progress had been made "toward identifying and isolating the source of the leak; also voluminous groundwater sampling tables, and evidence that groundwater contamination is physically isolated from the plant site's underlying aquifer."

Noggle cited a hydrogeology report from New Orleans-based Entergy Corp, which owns Vermont Yankee, that an NRC librarian later told him was posted to an industry computer server accessible by the NRC but not the general public.

"The NRC was provided a Hydrogeologic study report on Vermont Yankee online via the industry's Certrec computer system, which Entergy uses to provide inspection access to licensee documents, without the NRC actually taking custody of the document," NRC technical librarian Mary Mendiola wrote in an e-mail. "Therefore, the NRC never received the document that Raymond Shadis is requesting. He should contact Entergy directly for this document ..."

Information contained in that document was not being shared with the state board, despite an order from it in February that Vermont Yankee and Entergy update the board every two weeks on its investigation into tritium leaks at the plant, Shadis said.

Jared Margolis, a lawyer for Shadis' group, wrote to the board on July 1 saying the information it was getting from Entergy was "not complete or accurate," that it "does not accurately reflect the status of the investigation as reported to NRC," and that "it appears that Entergy has withheld information from the Board and the Parties regarding its investigations into these leaks."

Shadis said it was ironic that Entergy was declining to share information that appeared to put Vermont Yankee and its tritium cleanup efforts in a favorable light. He said the reluctance to make the information public resulted from "force of habit."

Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith said the company did not want to comment. "Since this was a filing made with the Board, we will respond before the Board as the Board directs," he said.

Concerns about Entergy sharing different information with the NRC than with the state come at a time when its relations with the state of Vermont have been much rockier than with the federal agency. The NRC approved a 20-year license extension for the plant earlier this year, while the state has been moving to shut its lone reactor down when its initial 40-year license expires next March. Entergy is suing in federal court to block the state's efforts.

The NRC also has been coming under scrutiny from critics who say it hasn't been a tough enough regulator. In an investigative series last month, The Associated Press reported that the NRC has been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation's aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them.

In an e-mail sent Friday, Screnci maintained the public should have confidence in the NRC as a regulator and in the way it handles information provided to it by the industry.

"The public should not be concerned that the NRC is reviewing licensee documents that are not available to the public while conducting inspections," she wrote. "As a matter of fact, independently verifying licensee information is an important part of our inspection process. When we document our activities in inspection reports, we list the documents reviewed, provide information on what the document contained and explain how we reached any conclusions. We always attempt to conduct our activities in an open and transparent way."

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