May 15, 2010, Don Kreis: Vermont Yankee and the Perils of PowerPoint Postscript

Assistant Professor Don Kreis wrote an op-ed piece May 15, 2010, in about Vermont Yankee, a follow up to his May 5 column on the nuclear power plant.

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” So wrote the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman. He could have been, but was not, writing about Vermont Yankee.

The Feynman quote appears just prior to a revised edition of “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” by Edward R. Tufte, the famous Yale University expert on visual evidence. This latest version of Tufte’s seminal essay, which among other things contains the infamous PowerPoint slide that helped destroy the space shuttle Columbia, appears in his 2006 book Beautiful Evidence.

The not-so-beautiful evidence of how Vermont Yankee failed to communicate to state officials the existence of tritium-leaking underground pipes at the Vernon facility is chronicled in the February 22, 2010 report of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius that the nuclear plant commissioned and filed with the Public Service Board in April. The lawyers’ key conclusion: “Although [we] did not find a basis to substantiate intentional wrongdoing,” certain Vermont Yankee personnel “failed at times to clarify understandings and assumptions.”

To offer an example of this failure to clarify, and as a fan of Tufte’s essay, I recently focused on the Morgan Lewis report’s discussion of a particular PowerPoint presentation given by Vermont Yankee employees to state investigators on September 11, 2008. (See “The Perils of PowerPoint at Vermont Yankee,” May 5, 2010.)

As noted there, one of the Vermont Yankee employees present at this meeting told the investigators that he couldn’t understand how anyone could have walked away from the meeting not understanding that two different kinds of pipes were at issue. One kind, underground pipes making direct contact with the soils beneath the plant, contained no radioactive materials. The other kind, leaking tritium, were buried in trenches and were therefore not considered “underground.” My hypothesis was (and remains) that maybe, just maybe, PowerPoint contributed to this muddle.

At least two noteworthy people found this publicly expressed theory to be unhelpful. One was David O’Brien, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service (DPS). The other was Meredith Angwin, formerly of the Electric Power Research Institute and now the person behind the “Yes Vermont Yankee” blog. Particularly if you don’t like Vermont Yankee, Angwin’s blog is worth reading because her analysis is clear and notably devoid of nuclear industry PR blarney.

Angwin’s contention is that “everyone,” by which she means both Vermont Yankee employees and the state investigators who were scrutinizing the plant, knew of the existence of the now-infamous pipes. Her ‘beautiful evidence’ of this is piping diagrams that, according to the Morgan Lewis report, Vermont Yankee gave the investigators on September 9, 2009, two days prior to the PowerPoint pow-wow. Angwin further points out that at the September 11 confab, the Vermont Yankee folks didn’t just show slides, they also distributed a table that described the various piping systems at the facility. I acknowledged this as well.

The “Yes Vermont Yankee” blogger therefore discounted my analysis as mere “rhetoric” intent on “tarring [Vermont Yankee] with completely unrelated disasters” like the Columbia disaster and military setbacks in Afghanistan, both of which I did indeed mention. O’Brien likewise found my analysis to be sensationalist and oversimplified.

In reality, the three of us are in complete agreement. But why is this significant and not just a written record of obscure written exchanges among two smart people and one law professor? O’Brien gives the answer in the response to Angwin he posted on her blog.

The commissioner pointed out that regulatory agencies like DPS “have to trust a utility to provide us with accurate information. Our entire system of regulation is based upon that basic premise. If that was not true, the DPS and every other [utility regulator] in the country would have to be at least twice as large.”

In other words, this isn’t the Watergate scandal. Vermont Yankee insists that its employees did not intentionally spread falsehoods. It is unlikely that anyone else (including DPS) will be able to prove otherwise. But this episode throws into sharp relief a related and potentially even more disturbing reality about the regulation of nuclear power plants and, indeed, the rest of the electric power industry.

Basically, it comes down to this: If the regulators don’t ask it, and if they don’t ask it with excruciating specificity, and if they don’t follow up those queries with equally precise questions in person and in writing, utilities do not volunteer the information, much less offer assistance to the regulators in getting the data they need. Every utility regulator in the country knows this. I knew it when I served as general counsel to a utility commission in a nearby state.

This is not the regulators’ fault. Employees of regulatory agencies, including DPS and the Vermont Public Service Board that decides utility cases, are dedicated, idealistic and insightful people. But they are completely out-gunned by the companies they regulate – companies that know the rules and how to work them. For example, they know how to put regulators in the position of having too little time to deploy their meager resources to full effect.

“People forget that the legislation [ordering the Vermont Yankee investigation] had us on a very tight schedule where we had less than 4 months to complete a massive inspection,” O’Brien noted. “We had to get the scope of the inspection agreed upon with the [outside “Public Oversight Panel” created by the legislation] so we could get started before the clock ran out. We did not have reason to believe that VY was not providing accurate information with regard to the pipes and therefore had no reason to second guess them by spending more time and money to verify their statement upfront.”

In these circumstances, it is not sensationalist to compare the Vermont Yankee investigation to the situation confronted by NASA decisionmakers on late January of 2003 as a fatally damaged Space Shuttle Columbia orbited the earth. They saw PowerPoint slides prepared by a private company (Boeing) that failed to convince them of the gravity of the situation. They had other sources of information, of course, as did the state’s consultants who watched Vermont Yankee’s PowerPoint slides five Januaries later. But in both situations, the reliance on PowerPoint was emblematic of the way so many private companies react to public scrutiny.

Seven astronauts died as the result of Columbia’s fateful final flight. That’s seven more people than Vermont Yankee has killed over the course of 38 years in service. Everyone is testy about nuclear power, which, in turn, engenders a low tolerance for an analogy between the causes of the Columbia disaster and the failure of investigators to understand what was leaking tritium at Vermont Yankee.

Though highly critical of PowerPoint, Tufte nowhere contends that anyone should eschew its use altogether. Rather, he argues for a responsible approach to the challenge of information transfer on the part of those charged with explaining complex technical matters to others. When those others are regulators and their consultants, the situation is particularly acute not because these professionals lack expertise but because they are short and time and resources despite being charged with undertaking efforts of high public importance.

Thus, as to what occurred at Vermont Yankee three years ago, PowerPoint was not the disease. It was the symptom of the disease.

Donald M. Kreis, associate director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, is the former general counsel to the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission.

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