Panel reviews Vermont Yankee uprate proposal

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(Host) State officials have warned of potential safety problems if Vermont Yankee is allowed to boost its power by 20 percent. The state wants the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a detailed review of the proposal.

VPR’s John Dillon has this report.

(Dillon) A three-judge panel of the U.S. Regulatory Commission came to Brattleboro on Thursday to hear some of the legal issues related to Yankee’s plan to increase power. But the judges won’t actually decide the case. Instead, they’ll rule on whether the proposal will get a closer look by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

It’s very rare that the NRC holds hearings in these cases. But Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien says there’s a fundamental principle at stake in the Yankee case. The principle is called “defense and depth” and it refers to a safety standard in the nuclear industry that says plants must use redundant systems to protect the public.

(O’Brien) “All we’re saying is when you dip into that margin you’re starting to push against that defense and depth argument.”

(Dillon) Entergy, the company that owns Yankee, wants to use the pressure inside the reactor as part of its safety margin. The operators would count on the pressure to make sure emergency pumps work in an accident.

But Vermont’s nuclear engineer and other experts have questioned this theory. O’Brien says that the Yankee proposal removes one of the redundant systems that are needed to prevent a runaway accident.

(O’Brien) “We have a question whether it is safe to take credit for this containment over-pressure. That is the root of what we’re questioning.”

(Dillon) Entergy’s lawyers argued that the state wasn’t entitled to a full hearing before the NRC. Jay Silberg is the lead counsel for the company in the case. He says that defense and depth may be a safety philosophy, but it isn’t found in the NRC regulations.

(Silberg) “So I think that to raise defense and depth to this high pedestal and you can never change, you can never remove a margin that’s put in is simply without legal or policy basis.”

(Dillon) Entergy/Vermont Yankee officials have also said that other nuclear plants have been allowed to use the reactor pressure for their safety systems.

The hearing panel will continue its work on Friday. Meanwhile, the New England Coalition, a citizens group that’s opposed to the power increase, asked the judges to dismiss Entergy’s application.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Brattleboro.

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