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2010-02-24

In Historic Vote, Vermont Poised to Shut Down Lone Nuclear Reactor

Guests

Arnie Gundersen, nuclear industry executive for many years before blowing the whistle on the company he worked for in 1990, when he found inappropriately stored radioactive material. Two years ago he was appointed to an oversight panel to study the Vermont Yankee plant. He and his wife Maggie are contracted consultants to the Vermont legislature.

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The nuclear power industry — and President Obama’s plans to fund its growth — is bracing for a major setback today as the Vermont state senate is expected to vote to shut down the Vermont Yankee plant, a nuclear reactor with a history of leaks. We speak to nuclear engineer and former industry executive Arnie Gundersen, who first sounded the bell on the Vermont Yankee. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The nuclear power industry — and
President Obama’s plans to fund its growth — is bracing for a major setback today as the Vermont state senate is expected to vote to shut down a nuclear reactor with a history of leaks.

The thirty-eight-year-old Vermont Yankee plant, which is owned by Entergy Corporation, is one of the oldest nuclear reactors in the country. The state senate is expected to deny a request to extend its forty-year lifespan by an additional twenty years, condemning the plant to close in 2012. The move would mark the first time a state has moved to shut down a reactor. It follows Obama’s announcement last week of $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of the first new nuclear power plants in the United States in close to three decades.

On Monday, the Nuclear Regulator Commission confirmed the Vermont Yankee has had several leaks of radioactive tritium dating back to 2005. An investigation later established that the plant’s owners had lied about the extent of contamination to the local water supply. They claimed the facility did not have underground pipes that could carry tritium, when it did.

The man who first sounded the alarm bell on Vermont Yankee is a nuclear engineer. His name is Arnie Gundersen. Two years ago he was appointed to an oversight panel to study the plant. He and his wife Maggie are contracted consultants to the Vermont legislature. Arnie Gundersen was a nuclear industry executive for many years before blowing the whistle on the company he worked for in 1990, when he found inappropriately stored radioactive material. Arnie Gundersen joins us now from Burlington, Vermont.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Tell us what you expect to happen today in the Vermont state senate.

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Good morning.

The senate has thirty members in Vermont. And the motion before them is to, as you said in the leader here, to either allow the plant to continue to operate for an extra twenty years or not allow the plant to continue. Right now, it’s a forty-year life, and that life ends in 2012. And they’ve asked for permission to run twenty years.

In Vermont, where it’s very unique, we don’t — we’re, as far as I know, the only state that presently has the ability to say no. It’s not on safety grounds, though. Our basis is on something called a certificate of public good. And the legislatures will decide whether or not it’s good for Vermont to allow that plant to continue running for twenty more years.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are you recommending a no vote?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: My recommendation is based on a couple things. The plant has had a long history of problems. We had a transformer fire, which was quite dramatic and well publicized, and then we had the cooling towers collapse, and then we also have lost some nuclear fuel. By “we,” I mean Vermont Yankee. And now we have a tritium leak that has gone undetected for probably a year.

On top of those mechanical problems, there are some other problems. Entergy is planning on spinning off this old plant and five other old plants into junk bond-rated company called Enexus. And there’s concern that there won’t be enough working capital to maintain the plant and enough capital to dismantle the plant when it’s due to shut down.

And then the last piece is the fact that the Entergy has not told the truth to the Public Service Board, at least three times. They were fined $51,000 in 2003, $82,000 in 2004. And for Vermont, those are big deal numbers. And now, of course, they’ve, over a period of about eighteen months, told the Public Service Board and me on the Public Oversight Panel that they had no underground pipes. That, of course, was proven wrong with the tritium leak.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this tritium leak and the underground pipes that — well, that the nuclear power plant had denied that it had.

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: This particular — this is a boiling water reactor. About 40 percent of the reactors in the country are boiling water reactors, and it’s one of the oldest boiling water reactors. A couple years ago, it had a 20 percent power increase, which put extra stresses on systems. And at the same time, Entergy didn’t hire any extra personnel with the 20 percent power increase.

So there’s a system that pulls oxygen out of the condenser called the off-gas system, and that appears to be leaking. It contains tritium and other radioactive isotopes. The only one that’s been detected so far is tritium in the soil, but in some other portions very near the soil, they’ve also detected cobalt and radioactive zinc.

The extent of the leak is quite large. It’s about 400 feet long and about 200 feet wide. And the depth is at least thirty feet. There’s monitoring wells down to thirty feet. Then it heads from the plant to the Connecticut River. It’s been detected only twenty or thirty feet away from the Connecticut River already.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the nuclear plant had denied that it had underground pipes?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: We were chartered, the panel — the oversight panel was chartered by the state to do something called a comprehensive vertical audit back in 2008. And the state asked the oversight panel to specifically look at underground pipe. That was one of the seven systems that they wanted — the state wanted us to look at. The contractor for the state inquired of Entergy, and they were told they had no underground pipes and that, in fact, there were none. So the issues related to leaking underground pipes that have been around the nation appeared to the panel to not apply to Vermont Yankee.

After that, we published a report, and this — over a period of eighteen months, there was plenty of opportunity to change the record. Entergy executives testified under oath that they had no underground pipes. And then I discovered — in my role as a contractor to the state legislature, I discovered that there really were underground pipes. I wrote to Entergy, and I said, “Do we have a misunderstanding here?” And they wrote back, “No, there’s no underground pipes.” That was last year; that was in August of last year.

Then I testified twice to the legislature in October. I told them there’s really underground pipes here, and we were mistaken when we wrote to you. And again, Entergy did nothing. And then, of course, in January, the pipe leaked, and it was obvious that there really were underground pipes.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us where Vermont Yankee is.

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Vermont Yankee is on the Connecticut River. It’s just north of the Massachusetts border and right across the river from New Hampshire. So it’s within half a mile of the New Hampshire shore and about five miles north of the Massachusetts border.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does this leak, this tritium leak, in underground pipes mean for the community?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: You know, it means a lot to Vermont. Right now, there are no drinking wells that are contaminated. There are many wells on the site that are well over the EPA standards, but so far the wedge, the tritium plume, has not traveled off site. Entergy has a well on site, which, as a precaution, they closed down, a drinking well on site that they closed down several days ago.

But the bigger issue is about Vermont’s brand. I mean, we have this brand of purity, and this story has run in about 500 papers around the country. So, you know, when you’re trying to sell Cabot cheese and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and maple syrup and skiing and leaf watching, having a tritium leak is not something that the image was really designed to handle.

AMY GOODMAN: Arnie Gundersen, we’re going to go to break, but we’re going to come back to you. And we’re also going to go to Georgia, where President Obama has just pushed for the building of two new nuclear plants, the first two in some three decades. So this is very significant what’s happening in Vermont today. Arnie Gundersen is a former nuclear industry executive, member of the oversight panel and consultant to the Vermont legislature. We also are going to find out about his history. He didn’t always live in Vermont, used to live in Connecticut and become a whistleblower, was seriously harassed there, until he moved to Vermont. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re in studio in Vermont, in Burlington, with Arnie Gundersen, former nuclear industry executive, member of the oversight panel and consultant to the Vermont legislature. It is expected today to vote to close its nuclear power plant, the first in the country to do so. There are about 104 nuclear power plants in the country. A very significant time that this is happening, because President Obama is pushing forward with nuclear power, to the surprise of many. For years, for decades, no nuclear power plant has been built in this country. He’s pushing for two to be built in Georgia.

Arnie Gundersen, your own background, how you came to be a whistleblower? You’re a nuclear engineer. You worked in Connecticut?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Yeah, I had — I have a bachelor’s and a master’s in nuclear. I was a licensed reactor operator, was a senior vice president of a nuclear firm. And I discovered some license violations. This is twenty years ago. I told the president about them, president of the company, and he fired me. I then contacted John Glenn and my local senator, Senator John Glenn, about the license violations. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission came in and found no violations. John Glenn then had the inspector general come in, and they found seven violations and found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had been taking illegal gratuities from my employer.

Didn’t stop there, though. I was sued for a million-and-a-half dollars by my employer, because I was slandering their reputation by writing to John Glenn. It went on for six years. And at the end, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to do anything, despite what’s called a SLAPP suit, a strategic litigation against public participation. The net result of that was that we, my wife and I, took an out-of-court settlement, because the litigation would have continued on for another five years, and we got on with our lives. And I became a nuclear watchdog. And we moved from Connecticut to Vermont.

AMY GOODMAN: And here you now have become a, well, well-known nuclear consultant, executive member of the oversight panel and consultant to the Vermont legislature. When you were in Connecticut, you started to receive harassing calls as you were speaking out against the power plant there?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: That’s — yes, that’s true. It was harassing calls, we were followed, there was private investigators that delved into our personal records. It was not a nice time. Worse, though, was the million-and-a-half-dollar lawsuit against us that ruined our credit. Our house was foreclosed on, and there was bankruptcy. It was literally designed to crush us. And it didn’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were sued again by? You were sued by?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Oh, I was sued by the company I worked for, Nuclear Energy Services. They were the licensee, and I was the senior vice president there. And their claim was that I had defamed their reputation by talking about the license violations. And, of course, you know, Senator Glenn and his subcommittee clearly proved that I was right and that the NRC was taking illegal gratuities, so the — but it didn’t stop the process, because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to get involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Arnie Gundersen, I know that you are racing off to Montpelier to Vermont’s Capitol to observe the vote, and there is a major snowstorm there, so I want to make sure you get out there safely. Drive slowly. And I hope you’re not driving a Toyota.

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: No, I’m not.

AMY GOODMAN: Very good. Thank you so much for joining us.

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