Black is white, bad is good, and a lousy maintenance record is “not relevant”

When T. Michael Twomey applied for his job, there were at least three requirements: 

1. Willingness to place his soul in escrow

2. Ability to say ridiculous things without cracking a smile

3. Cojones the size of grapefruits.

Twomey is Vice President for External Affairs for Entergy Wholesale Corporation, and he deployed his stone face and massive onions during lengthy testimony before the Vermont Public Service Board on Friday. It was the fifth day of hearings on Entergy’s request for a new certificate of public good to operate Vermont Yankee for another 20 years. 

(His testimony, as far as I can tell, was only covered by Susan Smallheer of the Herald/Times Argus, so the full story is behind the Mitchell Family Paywall.) 

According to Twomey, the various problems, breakdowns and maintenance issues that have occurred during Entergy’s ten-year ownership of Vermont Yankee are “not relevant” in deciding whether to let the plant stay open.  

Twomey and his attorney Robert Juman, of the New York law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, tried to deflect a long list of problems at the Vernon reactor in the 10 years Entergy has owned the plant. Juman raised objection after objection, claiming information about the 2007 and 2008 partial collapse of Yankee’s cooling towers was not relevant, and that neither were other issues at the plant, including the company’s response to the tritium leak there in 2010.

The Department of Public Service says the maintenance record — and the fact that Entergy executives lied under oath about the existence of underground pipes carrying radionuclides — proves that Entergy is an untrustworthy partner. But Juman contended that maintenance concerns relate to safety — which is strictly a matter of federal jurisdiction. 

Indeed, Entergy seems intent on stretching “safety” to include almost everything under the sun.  

Earlier in the week, its lawyers argued that the PSB can’t consider the economic impact of Vermont Yankee — even the impact of a meltdown. And the potential impact of a nuclear plant’s presence on tourism. Freeploid:

Burlington lawyer Robert Hemley told the three-member board the only reason the presence of a nuclear plant might harm tourism is if the public develops fears about nuclear safety – a subject Vermont is barred from considering.

“Discussion about tourism is a pre-empted area. … We feel the entire area is off-limits for this board,” Hemley said.

… Entergy lawyer Sanford Weisburst argued later that the board would be hard-pressed to find a plausible, non-safety reason to deny Vermont Yankee a new permit.

Well, sure, if you assert that everything relates somehow to safety, then it’s hard to find a “non-safety reason.” In Entergy’s eyes, black is white — and so is yellow, green, orange, brown, red, blue, ecru, aquamarine, burnt umber, and Misty Sunrise. 

Not trying to incite any conspiracy theories here, but the nuclear industry’s rather spotty safety record is kind of an asset in this regard. If people immediately thought “safe, clean, reliable” whenever they see a nuke, then Entergy couldn’t tie everything back into federally-regulated “safety” concerns. As it stands, when the first thought that comes into mind is “OH GOD OH GOD FUKUSHIMA CHERNOBYL THREE MILE ISLAND CHINA SYNDROME WE ALMOST LOST DETROIT OH GOD OH GOD RUN AWAY AIIIIEEEEEE,” then sure, it’s easy to say that everything revolves around safety.

Now, back to Twomey. He also engaged in “a verbal dance” over Entergy’s 2002 assurances that it would not seek to extend VY’s license beyond 2012, refusing to confront his company’s 180-degree turn. But the biggest howler of all may have been: 

“Honestly, we don’t want to go to court,” Twomey said at one point, causing more than a few raised eyebrows in the hearing room.

Raised eyebrows, eh? Uncontrollable laughter would have been the appropriate response. After all, Entergy has four law firms on retainer for its battle over VY, and has repeatedly filed challenges and lawsuits to state actions. 

Twomey told the PSB that he was assigned to VY after the underground-pipe scandal broke in 2010. Judging by his testimony, his assignment wasn’t to clean out the stables and improve relations with the state — but to delay, defer, defy, and cover up. 

And clearly, Entergy doesn’t give a rat’s ass about its “partnership” with Vermont. 

9 thoughts on “Black is white, bad is good, and a lousy maintenance record is “not relevant”

  1. I kind of like this bit that pops up:

    “We didn’t bargain for legislative action,”

    Sounds almost truthful in there among all the other stuff.

    The endgame just isn’t playing out as Entergy expected.Pity.

  2. When the towers collapsed, Entergy said there was no safety significance.  When the transformer caught fire, they said there was no safety significance.  When the tritium leaked, they said there was no safety significance.  Now Entergy says Vermont can’t discuss leaks, fires and a pile of rubble because of federally-regulated “safety” boundaries?  WTF?

  3. Entergy’s repeated argument that tourism is preempted depends on a flawed premise.

    The NRC regulates nuclear safety and the State of Vermont is therefore preempted from doing so independently. No one questions that. Tourism, however, depends not on safety, but on the PERCEPTION of safety.  The NRC does NOT regulate perception.  Perception is not one of the “nuclear aspects” of nuclear power.

    VY’s tritium leaks provide a perfect example.  The actual harm of the tritium released from VY’s underground pipes is pretty darned minimal. On any scale of environmental damage, it would be at the bottom. (I say that as a long-time anti-nuclear activist, who believes in the linear non-threshold theory of radiation and therefore that ANY addition to radiation in the environment causes harm).

    A similar incident occurred in France a few years ago. “Areva’s chief executive, Anne Lauvergeon, called the leak an “anomaly” which posed no danger to humans or the environment.” The French environment minister said there were 86 nuclear incidents of similar magnitude that year.

    In short, from a RADIOLOGICAL point of view — and therefore from the perspective of SAFETY regulators, this was pretty much a non-event.

    But from an ECONOMIC point of view — a point of view which the Board CAN consider and which the NRC does NOT consider, the effects were devastating.  One observer in France compared the incident there to a “shark attack.”

    “Rhône Valley wine makers whose label is Coteaux du Tricastin want to change their name. In nearby Bollène, sales of bottled water have soared despite assurances that the tap water is unaffected. Some people have even asked chemists for iodine tablets, recommended for a nuclear emergency.” (Guardian, July 29, 2008)  

    In sum, incidents of NO safety consequence which therefore fall OUTSIDE of federal jurisdiction CAN influence tourism, and therefore have major impact on Vermont’s economy, its “brand,” and therefore its “public good.”

    Entergy’s argument depends on confusing perception with reality, but that’s not a legitimate basis for a preemption claim.

    The Department of Public Service has been vigorously making this point as well.

  4. You have to hand it to the people from Entergy.  They will say and do anything to get their way; no matter how hypocritical.  For ten years they have argued, and the NRC has concurred, that each and every incident, leak, lie, fire, collapse and failure has not been safety related.

    Then we have representatives of the business community step forward to say that the perception created by this company’s neglect has a negative impact on the Vermont brand and somehow that’s a safety issue.

    Fortunately, the three individuals serving on our Public Service Board are at least as smart as Entergy’s expensive lawyers and will undoubtedly see through this cheap ploy.  

  5. I sure wish that the PSB would bring that up:

    “Entergy has previously testified before this board that tower collapse, transformer fire and tritium leak were of no safety significance. Now Entergy is saying that those are all safety related.  Which is it, and how can Entergy ever be trusted when their definitions change from one minute to the next?  Just why shouldn’t the PSB order an immediate shutdown given the 100% untrustworthiness of Entergy?”

  6. that particular area of consideration under the sole purview of the NRC.

    HOWEVER, they can consider reliability (and while those incidents have a safety component, they also have a separate reliability component). A plant that is down-powered or fully shut down is not providing the expected energy services. VY spends a lot of time running at a power level lower than the power it’s supposed to be putting out. This has the potential to cause issues with grid stability.

    They can also consider necessity – there is no longer a need for VY in the state’s energy mix, so the plant offers no “good” to the public.

    Couple lack of necessity with its potential ability to destabilize the grid via unplanned reductions of power, and it’s in the public’s best interest to take it off line.

    I’m sure Entergy is making these “safety” arguments at this level in an attempt to get someone on the board to make a mistake, and say something safety-related. It’s all setting the stage for the inevitable court fight.  

  7. It sounds “almost truthful,” until you recall that the law requiring legislative approval for storage of additional fuel was passed in the 1970s and that Entergy ASKED for the legislation that it now claims is preempted.

    “Almost truthful” is one of Entergy’s specialties.

  8. You’re missing a subtlety here.  The collapse of the cooling tower was NOT safety related according not only to Entergy, but to the NRC (in testimony to a legislative committee). Presumably that’s because if the cooling towers were out of order entirely, the plant still could dump hot (non-radioactive) cooling water into the river and not cause any radiation damage.  But that means that in legal terms, the cooling towers are not part of the “nuclear aspects” of nuclear power; non-nuclear plants also have cooling towers.  

    So despite Entergy’s assertion that the cooling towers are a preempted issue, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t.  Other parties have raised this at the PSB (including me (I’m an “interested party,” which is to say a non-party, but I occasionally write comments to the PSB).

    I agree with the gist of what you say however: the point of Entergy’s exercise is to find hooks on which to hang appeals.

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