Finances, panel blow-out at Yankee raise concerns
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | March 21,2013
BRATTLEBORO — Changes in the energy marketplace have forced Entergy Nuclear to write down the value of Vermont Yankee nuclear plant from $517 million to $162 million, prompting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ask for the company’s financial projections for the next five years.
The NRC took the unusual step of asking for additional information from Entergy Nuclear about the finances of Yankee, citing a recent Entergy filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The NRC on Wednesday released a letter it sent to Entergy about the request for financial information, and noted it had been discussing its concerns with Entergy since at least Feb. 14.
According to the letter, Entergy was forced to write down the “carrying value” of Yankee from $517 million to a “fair value” of $162 million.
But those changes prompted the NRC to ask for what it called “updated pro formas for the operations and maintenance and cash flow for Vermont Yankee” up to 2018.
“The NRC staff requires further information to insure that the licensee is meeting NRC requrements for financial qualifications,” said the letter, signed by Richard Guzman, senior project manager for the NRC.
Entergy, in its November 2012 filing with the SEC, cited pending legal and state regulatory matters, as well as future revenues and expenses, as the reasons behind its financial adjustments.
It said Guzman had been evaluating the plant’s continued operation quarterly since early 2010.James Sinclair, spokesman for Vermont Yankee, refused to answer questions about the NRC’s move and Yankee’s finances.
“We are in receipt of the request for information and will be responding to the NRC,” he said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the NRC also announced that Yankee, which is currently shut down for refueling and maintenance, had a panel in the secondary containment of the reactor building “blow out” early Monday morning because of over-pressurization in the building. There are 40 such panels.
Robert Williams, an Entergy spokesman, said workers had started up the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the reactor building early Monday, but the exhaust fan did not come on, creating what he called a “slight increase” in air pressure in the pressurized building.
“One of the relief panels dislodged, which it is designed to do,” Williams said. The panel are designed to fall away in the face of intense pressure from tornados.
A 6-by-10-foot aluminum panel was blown out and landed dozens of feet away, on top of the turbine building. The panel is supposed to be attached to a wire rope, according to Uldis Vanags, the state nuclear engineer who sent a memo about the problem to members of the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel.
Both the NRC and Entergy said there was no discernable increase in the release of radiation from the reactor building with the hole. A temporary panel has been put in place.
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said a senior health physicist had done calculations on whether the opening presented a public danger and concluded it did not.
“There are no doses to the public or plant workers because of this,” Sheehan said, adding that Entergy was doing “real-time” air monitoring on the refueling floor as a result.
Sheehan said the missing panel was in the top floor of the reactor building, where workers are preparing to remove spent fuel from the reactor core and transfer it to the spent fuel pool, as well as move new, fresh fuel into the core.
Williams said the temporary panel would not keep the plant from its refueling schedule, nor would it prohibit the plant from re-starting.
But to one longtime Vermont Yankee critic, the missing panel in the reactor building was another indication that the plant was poorly designed to protect the public.
“This incident is a downtime demonstration of the fact that secondary containment, as well as primary containment, is designed for failure of its ostensible purpose of containing radioactive releases in the event of a reactor accident,” said Raymond Shadis, senior technical advisor for the New England Coalition.
Shadis said the NRC’s commissioners were currently considering a mandate that would require rupture disks on primary containment to be backed up by radiation filters.
A relatively small hydrogen burn or a high-energy line break would suffice to blow out over-pressure panels, such as the one blown out in this incident, he said.
“In short, even the most obtuse observer should now understand that Vermont Yankee’s containment safety systems have a very high probability of failure,” Shadis wrote in an email Wednesday.
Shadis also cited the NRC’s request for more financial information from Entergy, and he said he had testified during recent Public Service Board hearings on Yankee’s future relicensing about what Shadis called the “precarious viability” of Vermont Yankee’s future operations.
“Now NRC too has its doubts as to whether VY even meets the financial qualifications for a license,” he added.