Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sam Collins, and the Art of Writing Press Releases

Dear God,

The intolerance of the people of Vermont and nearby New Hampshire and Massachusetts never ceases to amaze me.

Everyone is mad because, in my press release announcing that Vermont Yankee was powering up again after refueling, I failed to mention the additional 16 cracks in the steam dryer that we found during the outage. I also decided not to mention the five degraded wooden support beams we discovered in the reactor's only safety-related cooling tower cell.

I've explained that mention of those problems would have made my press release too long. Don't these people know that press releases are one-page affairs—and that's on 8-1/2" paper, not on an endless roll of toilet stuff? Don't they know that a whole hunk of that one measly page will always be taken up by the headline and the contact information? And that then there's the date and all of the Who, What, When, and Where stuff to include? I mean there are rules to follow!

Given all of those constraints, the single hardest part of press release writing is the headline. I thought I did a good job in my release announcing our power-up after the outage. I billed the release as a list of the successes we'd had, and the copy matched the headline. I mean, the whole point of a headline is to grab attention, all the while keeping people optimistic about their chances for survival.

So to all of those Negative Nancys out there who think they know more than I do, I'm going to distribute a document that will make them eat crow, gosh darn it. The document is actually a quiz, and it's called….

Humility 101: What Makes You Think You Can Write a Press Release?

Here are some dicey situations Vermont Yankee is in. Chose from among the headlines offered, and then feel grateful that this is my job, not yours.

Situation 1. The Vermont Energy Partnership ("VEP"), of which Entergy is a prominent, high-stakes member, wants to convince legislators to relicense Vermont Yankee. What is the headline of a convincing press release?


Situation 2. The public is angry and wary because of chronic cooling tower problems and a consistent pattern of half-truths emerging from Entergy and the NRC. The NRC performed a special safety inspection and invited the public to a meeting at the Latchis Theatre to explain that the safety inspection had pretty much given VY a clean bill of health. As it turns out, that wasn't even half true. The NRC had found huge problems—the 16 aforementioned cracks in the steam dryer and the five aforementioned support beams that were dangerously degraded in the sole safety cell in the cooling towers. What is the headline of a face-saving press release?

Situation 3. Those activists may look ugly, but thank God, God, that they're not mean, too. Quite a few know about the role that Sam Collins, currently the NRC's Region 1 administrator in charge of enforcing safety at Vermont Yankee, played in the near disaster at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, which would have wrought death, destruction, and, yes, prayers about cancer to Toledo, Ohio. They know about Sam Collins's role, but they've been too kind to make a big deal out of it. You see, he's probably embarrassed, and they're being sensitive. (Background info: In late winter of 2002 the Davis-Besse plant shut down for refueling. It was during the refueling shutdown that engineers discovered that, over the course of six years of inadequate inspections, corrosive coolant had been leaking from the core. The coolant had created a six-by-five-by-four inch cavity in the liner of the core. All that remained of the liner was a warped piece of steel a little thicker than tin foil. It and it alone contained approximately 2200 psi of highly radioactive internal environment. Had the pressure burst through the remaining lining and into the reactor containment building, it might have set in motion a core meltdown, and just 21 miles away from Toledo. At that time, Sam Collins—"our" Sam Collins—was the NRC nuclear reactor regulation director for that region. He was the person at the NRC who had allowed FirstEnergy executives to talk the NRC out of issuing a shutdown order at the plant, and he did that even though at least one NRC inspector reporting to Sam had a photograph showing the Davis-Besse reactor head with streaks of suspicious looking rust. Sam was also in charge of NRC oversight of the Peach Bottom nuclear plant when, in 2007, the NRC allowed guards to continue sleeping on the job, even though a whistleblower let them know it was happening. Finally that whistleblower sent video of the sleeping guards to a local TV station.) Anyway, in the event that our local activists do eventually try to make a big deal out of the connection between Davis-Besse's and even Peach Bottom's lack of oversight and ours, the headline you write is:

I hope you can see, Lord, that writing a press release that all parties to a deal like is a wing and a prayer kind of thing.



Monday, November 17, 2008

Safety is a Joke

Dear God,

Sorry I didn't pray about this at the end of last week but I thought that if I just pulled my covers over my head for the weekend the whole problem might go away.

But here it is Monday, and the cooling towers at Vermont Yankee are still reminding me of that old Will Rogers line, "It takes a lot of money just to get beaten."

To quote the Rutland Herald of November 14:

The discovery of more degraded wooden support beams in Vermont Yankee's cooling towers — this time in the reactor's only safety dedicated cell — raised questions Thursday about how thorough a special Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection was this summer.

Workers at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant had to immediately replace five deteriorated major support columns in the one safety-related cell of the reactor's two cooling towers during the plant's recent refueling outage, according to the NRC.

This is a milestone, God, and the kind that makes even Democrats swear! It's the first safety-related problem to which we might be held accountable since I don't know when. Even the Department of Public Service seems to have expressed "surprise," though its spokesman Stephen Wark has presciently held back from expressing its more dreaded measure of disapproval, "disappointment."

Cooling systems are expensive, God, and ours seems to be about as worthless as unsugared Jello. For example, overhauling the cooling system at Indian Point may cost around $1 billion. The two sites aren't particularly similar. Indian Point has two reactors. Vermont Yankee has one. Etc., etc., so I don't even know where to begin ballparking Vermont Yankee's potential expenses. But in this economy, raising an enormous amount of money won't be easy.

But finances regarding the cooling tower aren't actually our biggest problem this week. Our biggest problem is a public relations one that may become a legislative one in just a few short hours. The November 14 Rutland Herald article inspired a few letters to the editor about Vermont Yankee's inability to respond to problems with "fixes" that stick. One from this morning is particularly chilling.

In 1992 the owners of Vermont Yankee acknowledged a high probability of its Mark I containment rupturing when needed to protect the public in a severe accident. The remedy: Vermont Yankee accepted a recommendation from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and installed an automatically operated hardened vent system to prevent high pressure during an accident from destroying the containment.

But the automatic vent could itself be the path for the release of radioactive fission products. In 1998 the owners of Vermont Yankee recognized deficiencies and wrote a letter to the NRC announcing that they had closed off access to the automatic vent.

The owners implemented no other fix. The flaws in the Mark I containment Vermont Yankee acknowledged by implementing the automatic vent remain to this day. No inspection program can address this known problem. The defective containment is inherent in the obsolete design of Vermont Yankee, one of the oldest nuclear plants operating today.

As you can imagine, Lord, this is shaping up to be a particularly bad week for the PR department here, what with the legislature convening its new session at noon today and with Vermont Yankee's application for relicensing as one of the top items on its agenda.

Normally, Lord, and especially during dark times like this week, I try to include a little humor in my prayers—all in an attempt to cheer both you and me up. I've searched all but the barest corners of my brain for a blonde joke that would fit the bill here, and I haven't been able to find one. So an NRC joke will have to do. (They're becoming increasingly easy to find.)

A: How many special NRC safety inspectors can you place on the point of a needle?

A: Ten, if you make them stand on their heads.

Now I feel better. You?



Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Crack Kills

Dear God,

Coming on the heels of embarrassing news earlier this year -- first about a stoned control room operator and then about a drunk employee – is news about crack at Vermont Yankee.

Only, as I pointed out to the Rutland Herald, it's not really news. We've always had a crack problem. Unfortuntately, I'm not talking about the drug-of-choice problem from the mid 1980s, the one produced by smoking a boiled combination of powdered cocaine, water, and baking soda. That kind of crack problem has to do with the risk of death inherent in a crazed attempt to get high. Crack kills, and even if it doesn't it can make you paranoid and violent.

No, the crack problem we have at Vermont Yankee is potentially far more deadly. Though it does sound milder. Listen: "We found 16 new cracks in the steam dryer." Big deal, huh? Well, it is. Just add those 16 new cracks to the 47 cracks the dryer already had, and we now have a ringing total of 63 steam dryer cracks.

Yeah, I know. Well, if 47 cracks haven't been a problem, why should anyone believe that 63 will be? In other words, how in heaven's name could this kind of crack problem be more serious than the problem ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of addicts as well as the lives of their children and their crime victims?

Here's the "how" of it all: Our kind of crack problem threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who have not thumbed their noses at conventional wisdom and flagrantly hurt themselves and others. Our kind of crack problem threatens people who've only endangered themselves and their families by listening uncritically while I blather about Vermont Yankee being safe, clean, and reliable. Hearing my assurances, they have agreed to live or work near an aging nuclear power plant whose major parts collapse in broad daylight but that, incredibly, has been allowed by the NRC to boost its power output by 20% and chug along at that rate rather too merrily.

We have not yet had any disastrous -- or even dramatic -- consequences to that power uprate. But other plants have not been so lucky. Indeed, as of October 15, 2004, a cracked steam dryer had failed in four of ten nuclear power plants receiving uprates of 13% or more.

And when she blows, she blows.

According to Ray Shadis, NEC Technical Staff advisor, “In one reactor a piece of heavy steel nine feet long and a foot and a half wide tore loose and was blown down the steam line at supersonic speed.” According to the Rutland Herald, after an uprate "at the Dresden reactor in Illinois, the vibration from additional power generation caused pieces of the steam dryer to come loose, and lodge in safety-related equipment."

Hmmm. One event sounds dreadful, the other sounds like the stuff of a lullabye. I wonder if those are two descriptions of the same accident? If so, it's a textbook example of the power of subtle phrasing. "Lodged in safety-related equipment." Well, that's something an eyelash could do, and what harm would that bring? Let's go live near that power plant!

And so today, appreciating anew the power of tact, in announcing the discovery of the 16 new cracks I did not iterate for the media the many safety problems that uprates have caused in the steam dryers of nuclear power plants across the nation. Rather, I delicately suggested that our 16 steam dryer cracks are not new harbingers of catastrophe to come. They're old, tired harbingers that can safely be ignored. Because, actually, these 16 cracks may have been with us all along. We've only noticed them now that our inspection equipment is better.

Which is to say that, as Vermont Yankee's inspection technology improves, we shouldn't rush to do anything about the information we glean. Instead we should assume that any discovery that makes our uprate or continued operation seem dangerous is only an artifact of Entergy Nuclear/Vermont Yankee's rising commitment to state-of-the-art measurement tools -- and of our incredible honesty and transparency.

Hey, Lord! Did you hear inspirational music swelling as I typed that last sentence? Heavens, I like that sentence!

I think I may even like it more than than the "higher fenceline radiation levels are really a measure of lower fenceline radiation levels" argument we put out just a few weeks ago. Over the years at Vermont Yankee, we've really learned to uprate the PR.

Thanks for hearing me out, Lord, like you always do.



Thursday, November 6, 2008

Chic Alors!

Dear God,

I am so darn mad. I've been hoodwinked! I got a phone call this afternoon from someone who identified himself as President Sarkozy of France. And in the phone call I agreed to think about energy in a whole knew way. "Monsieur Le President" had listened to a story on NPR this morning as he drove to his day job as an instructor of ridiculous French accents, and that story is what he wanted to talk to me about.

The story was about Duke Energy, a major power utility based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Duke has been hoping to build more coal-fired and nuclear plants in order to meet the ever-growing needs of its power customers. The news is that Duke may have identified a way to meet those needs in a way that is safe, clean, and reliable..

Which is to say that Duke now sees rooftops as future power plants. In a test, Duke is installing solar panels on hundreds of customers' roofs. Duke owns and operates the solar panels, and they pay the customers for the use of their roofs. The solar panels feed into the grid, and the customers derive electrical energy from the grid just as they always have. In other words, Duke pays them rent on their roof-top real estate, and they pay Duke for the power! In the end, energy might not be cheaper for the customers than it has been. But the energy produced this way is entirely green and non-polluting.

Well, Vermont Yankee is not really a power utility in the way that Duke Energy is. VY is just a nuclear power plant. But I'm intrigued (or "ahntreegay" as Monsieur Le President taught me to say this morning) by the idea of exploiting real estate on roofs. And so I've written up--and already sent out--a memo suggesting a roof idea. I'm suggesting that we store high-level radioactive waste on rooftops throughout Windham County. Because, hey, the customers could use the rent money we'd pay. And (also, hey) we've had a few big concerns regarding the dry casks holding our waste on site. Putting the casks on roofs will address all of those concerns.

Well, terrorists can hardly fly a single plane into many houses sprinkled throughout Windham County, can they? See, we'd be spreading the danger (and that idea would meet instant, widespread approval, given Barack Obama's success at the idea of "spreading the wealth." It's a coattail effect I'm talking about here, PR-wise.) Furthermore, putting dry cask storage on roof tops of homes would remove the casks entirely from the muddy flood plain. And finally, putting the dry cask containers on roofs would diminish fenceline radiation at Vermont Yankee. Why everyone is so darned concerned about the health of that fence, I'll never understand.

Anyway, Lord, I think I made an idiot out of myself falling for the prank phone call, but I also think that the ideas that resulted from the phone call are good. The universe is still looking out for me, n'est-ce pas?

Just kidding. :) I know it's been you looking out for me all along.



Tuesday, November 4, 2008

D'ja Vote Yet?

Dear God,

Some people wearing radiation suits went to the Public Service Board in Montepelier to vote early. Those lines on Monday must have been long!—because apparently some of the early voters lost control of their bladders and left urine-soaked stinky stuff all over the floor. And I didn't even know the PSB office was a polling place.

Hey, where were those Obama Comfort Teams when you need one?