Get to know Vt.’s decommissioning coordinator
BRATTLEBORO — His tie is a dead giveaway.
What man would wear a tie featuring the periodic table and then quickly identify uranium, neptunium and plutonium, adding that the trinity of radioactive elements were named after the planets?
The man is Anthony Leshinskie, Vermont’s new nuclear engineer and decommissioning coordinator.
Leshinskie, 51, has been on the job a little over a month, and it’s been a fast-forward tutorial in Vermont politics and all things associated with the state’s controversial nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee, which is shutting down at the end of 2014.
Leshinskie spent much of his previous career working for Westinghouse on the country’s largest nuclear power plant complex, Palo Verde 1, 2 and 3 in the Arizona desert. Those plants are Westinghouse pressurized water reactors, unlike Vermont Yankee, which is a boiling water reactor designed and built by General Electric.
Leshinskie, who has a degree in nuclear engineering from Pennsylvania State University, replaced Uldis Vanags, whose expertise was in radiological safety. Vanags left state government last year after six years to return to his home in Maine and to work for the Council on State Governments on the issue of the transportation of high-level radioactive waste.
Leshinskie works for the Vermont Department of Public Service, whose commissioner, Christopher Recchia, says that he purposely changed Leshinskie’s job title to decommissioning coordinator.
Recchia said Leshinskie will spend the next five months learning as much as he can about the Vernon reactor, to prepare him and give him the background knowledge to coordinate the state’s efforts on shutting the plant down.
The state wants Entergy Corp. to decommission the 42-year-old reactor as quickly as possible, while Entergy has the legal right under Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations to put the plant into nuclear-style mothballs and wait as long as 50 years for the decommissioning trust fund to grow and some radioactive components to “cool down.”
Leshinskie said that his first impression of Vermont Yankee was very favorable, adding that there was no indication that Entergy Nuclear is scrimping on maintenance or on the training of its staff to keep the plant running safely until it shuts down sometime at the end of the year.
“My first impression is the staff at VY is very focused on operating the plant safely through the remaining time frame. They are already working on the first phases of decommissioning,” he said. Other work currently underway at the plant is determining how the emergency plan will change after the plant is de-fueled, he said.
“So far I see a well-run plant,” he said.
No drop off in morale
Leshinskie said he had expected to encounter a “demoralized” work force because of Entergy Corp.’s decision to shut down Vermont Yankee because the aging plant would not yield as much proft in a natural-gas dominated power market.
But he said he has seen no indication of that. In fact, he said, Entergy has been working at maintaining training standards for its reactor operators, which it could have dropped in the final months of operation.
Instead, the VY control room operators are still receiving annual requalification testing, which will make them attractive to other future nuclear employers, including jobs in the Entergy fleet, such as Pilgrim in Massachusetts, Vermont Yankee’s sister plant.
According to Recchia and William Jordan, director of engineering for the department and Leshinskie’s immediate boss, Leshinskie’s role is to be a fact gatherer and to get information to the state’s policymakers.
“The policy is already set; we’re all on board with that,” said Recchia, noting the Shumlin administration had long pushed for the plant to close — something decided by Entergy even after it won a major legal victory against the state in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals last summer.
“The state of the state nuclear engineer is the same as it’s always been: to monitor the plant, understand how the plant works, and know what’s going on at the plant and to keep the state informed,” said Jordan.
Recchia and Jordan said that Leshinskie impressed them with his communication skills, both written and oral, as well as his nuclear training and technical knowledge.
The job pays about $90,000 a year. Recchia said the state interviewed 10 or 12 people for the post before offering the job to Leshinskie.
“He has a good background in nuclear power and de-fueling at some plants, which (are) both in line with our needs,” he said.
According to Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Region One, all states that host a nuclear reactor have regular contact with the NRC via a governor-appointed state liaison officer. In Region One, he said, about half of the states have state nuclear engineers, with some states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania having two.
Leshinskie’s title has been slightly changed to reflect the new necessary emphasis on decommissioning.
However, the role of the state nuclear engineer, who has access to confidential documents as well as the plant itself, should be more of a critic, according to Raymond Shadis, senior technical adviser for the New England Coalition, the state’s oldest anti-nuclear group.
“What Vermont or any ‘reactor-occupied community’ does not need is a bureaucratic pussycat,” said Shadis. “State nuclear engineers can have a very positive effect on both nuclear safety and nuclear regulation, but that often involves taking to task both NRC and the nuclear licensee in an open and public way.”
Shadis said New Jersey’s former senior state nuclear engineer Dennis Zannoni “was an outstanding exception to the NRC/industry ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ tacit rule.
“Most state nuclear engineers, and I’ve interacted with a number of them, feel obliged to protect the utility from an indignant public,” he said.
“Vermont not only needs an engineer that wants to be a tough regulator, Vermont needs an engineer that realizes he or she is playing catch-up with a plant that is used up.”
A quick, thorough assessment of all safety issues that have been raised during Entergy’s tenure at the plant, as well as “legacy” issues left by its previous owners, is in order, Shadis said.
TMI sparked interest
Leshinskie, a native of Pennsylvania, grew up about 60 miles from Harrisburg, Pa., and the still infamous Three Mile Island nuclear reactors. Leshinskie said that he was in high school in Shamokin, a coal-mining area, at the time of the March 1979 near meltdown, and instead of being scared off his childhood goal of studying nuclear engineering, he said he was even more intrigued.
His father, a welder for Bethlehem Steel, had worked in the anthracite deep mines prevalent in that part of Pennsylvania, and another form of energy caught Leshinskie’s interest.
Leshinskie was a junior in high school when TMI occurred. He said he was struck then by the difference in reporting by the local Pennsylvania television and newspapers, compared to the national news, which he said sensationalized the seriousness of the incident.
Adding to his interest, one of his brothers was working in Middletown, Pa., and could see TMI from his place of work, and another was living in Lancaster, Pa., which is also nearby.
“It piqued my interest,” he said.
Leshinskie said when he first applied for the Vermont state nuclear engineer job, he was concerned that his job would be political, rather than technical.
“The state wanted Vermont Yankee shut down and so did the people of Vermont,” he said. Leshinskie said he felt he was being asked to “go over to the other side.”
But he said he was reassured by an odd coincidence. On the day he was in Montpelier for his interview, Recchia was interviewed on the radio about Vermont Yankee, he said, and he was reassured that his role would not be anti-nuclear.
Leshinskie graduated from Penn State University in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering. He went on to work at the university as a research assistant before starting work with ABB Combustion Engineering, a nuclear engineering firm that was eventually bought by Westinghouse.
Leshinskie spent a total of 27 years with the two firms, based in Windsor, Conn., before his section at Westinghouse was eliminated in 2012, as the company coped with the after-effects of the economic depression.
While at Westinghouse, Leshinskie became an expert in pressurized water reactors such as the three reactors in the Arizona desert that make up the United States’ largest commercial nuclear plant.
And he said the transition to the technology of a boiling water reactor, like the Vermont Yankee plant, has been mostly a case of learning new nuclear acronyms.
Jordan, Leshinskie’s immediate boss, said the state will need a nuclear engineer for many years to come, despite Yankee shutting down.
“We view this as a long-term, permanent position,” said Jordan. He noted there were several phases to Yankee’s shutdown, starting with moving the fuel out of the reactor core to the spent fuel pool; the transfer of the fuel to the plant’s air-cooled passive dry-cask storage facility; and the plant’s eventual dismantling and cleanup.