Compost throwing incident mars NRC public hearing


High inspection marks anger resident, who says plant's performance is not deserving

April 17, 2009

By Susan Smallheer, Rutland Herald Staff

BRATTLEBORO – Federal regulators got a grilling and were pelted with compost from a hostile group Thursday as people questioned the high marks it gave to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant despite repeated problems at the Vernon reactor in 2008.

Frustrations reached a breaking point Thursday afternoon, when an anti-nuclear activist threw a handful of compost at Entergy Nuclear officials sitting in a conference room at the Ramada Inn, and then spread handfuls of compost on the papers of Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials and in their water glasses.

Residents and area activists had criticized federal regulators for giving Entergy Nuclear the highest marks – "green" – for its operation and safety record in 2008.

"Everything manages to get to 'green,'" complained Michael Granger of Newfane, as he and others detailed the lost list of problems, dropped nuclear loads, radioactive leaks, cracks in reactor components and broken beams in the cooling towers at the reactor last year.

Entergy Nuclear officials later boycotted the evening "town meeting" session on its annual assessment by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, saying they would not tolerate such treatment, according to Samuel Collins, the NRC Region One administrator.

Activist Sally Shaw of Gill, Mass., who is originally from Manchester, said she was frustrated with how the NRC and Entergy was handling spent nuclear fuel and she had brought them some "spent food" as an exchange. Shaw, who volunteers with the New England Coalition, lives in the emergency evacuation zone of the reactor.

Shaw had criticized the NRC for not holding Entergy Nuclear accountable for apparent violations of fire safety codes. Rather than make Entergy move fire-prone cables farther apart as other reactors were required to do, Entergy was allowed to keep them as they were, she said.

There have been 125 fires at nuclear plants since 1995, she said, and earlier this year Entergy got an exemption from the NRC, she said.

Walking up to the head table, with the NRC officials stiffening in their chairs, Shaw reached into a plastic shopping bag and took out some dark brown compost and spread it across the papers of the NRC officials, and into their water glasses.

"No charge," she said. "That's really good quality compost."

Her act, which she called civil disobedience, unnerved the Washington bureaucrats, who were obviously worrying about something more serious than compost, and they condemned her stunt loudly.

"And you didn't answer my question," she added.

When Entergy Nuclear officials didn't show up for the evening session, which was billed as a "town-meeting-style discussion" of issues at Vermont Yankee, their absence was condemned by one neutral party, James Matteau, the executive director of the Windham Regional Commission.

Matteau asked Collins why he allowed Entergy to avoid the session and answer the public's questions, as well as letting the last three Entergy officials, who did show up for the meeting, but quickly left, to exit unchallenged.

"For them not to be here is a complete disservice to the community," Matteau said, pointing out that his organization, which is a party to Entergy Nuclear's bid for another 20 years of operation, is officially neutral on the issue.

"I am offended that they aren't here," he said. "You should be objecting that they aren't here," he told Collins.

Larry Smith, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear, who was apparently sent into the meeting to retrieve two errant Entergy engineers, said Shaw had also thrown compost at Michael Columb, Entergy's new site vice president, outside in the parking lot after the afternoon session had ended. He said Entergy had contacted Brattleboro police about the incident, but police who were on duty at the meeting said they had no knowledge of the later incident.

The afternoon session reviewed Vermont Yankee's annual assessment, in which the NRC gave the plant its best marks.

Vermont Yankee is not alone in getting good marks, as 1,762 of the 1,768 total performance indicators at all of the 104 U.S. nuclear reactors were marked "green," with only six marked "white," and none "yellow" or "red."

The good grades continued nationwide with inspection findings, with 776 "green" findings, 17 "white" findings, and no "yellow" or "red" findings. Vermont Yankee got all "green" marks, and as a result will receive "baseline" inspections in 2009.