Judges reject request for formal hearings on Vermont Yankee

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(Host) A panel of judges for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has rejected the state’s request to hold formal hearings on Vermont Yankee’s plans to increase power. But a lawyer for the state says the ruling will still allow the state to examine safety questions posed by the power increase.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Before Vermont Yankee can boost power by 20 percent, it needs the approval of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. State officials have raised questions about the plan. Their concern has focused on Yankee’s proposal to rely on high pressure within the reactor as part of its safety margin.

So the state asked a three-judge panel at the NRC to hold detailed, court-like hearings that would allow lawyers to present experts and challenge testimony. Late last week, the judges turned down that request. Instead, they said they’ll rely on a more informal process that will be handled mainly in writing.

Neil Sheehan is a spokesman for the NRC.

(Sheehan) “They’ve opted for a less formal proceeding, but they’ve also left open the opportunity for cross-examination of witnesses by the parties.”

(Dillon) State officials were somewhat disappointed by the decision. But Sarah Hofmann, the lawyer for the Department of Public Service, says the judges gave the state enough leeway to get at the information it wants.

(Hofmann) “They actually left in the idea that we’d be able to cross-examine experts and their opinions where it’s needed to establish an adequate record to resolve any conflicts. So we are actually thinking it is a reasonable opportunity for the state to reach the issues that we want explored.”

(Dillon) The NRC has reviewed 101 requests by nuclear plants to retrofit reactors to produce more power. And so far, the federal government has approved every single one.

But Sheehan, the NRC spokesman, says the Yankee case is the first time the commission has decided to conduct hearings, even at the informal level.

(Sheehan) “The NRC staff continues to review the uprate application. And this application will also be reviewed by another independent arm of the NRC, called the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. They will also look at this. It’s really receiving a considerable amount of scrutiny at the end of the day.”

(Dillon) The NRC had hoped to complete its review of the Yankee uprate next month. But the commission recently extended the review period by several months.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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