Some lawmakers questioning federal review of Yankee plant

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(Host) Federal nuclear regulators have promised to work with the state on a safety inspection of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

But some lawmakers are questioning whether the federal review will satisfy their demand for a truly independent assessment.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Vermont Yankee is under a Statehouse microscope. Lawmakers are supposed to decide next year whether to extend its license for another 20 years. And legislation this year requires a detailed, independent safety audit for the 36 year old plant.

So when two officials for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a rare appearance before the House Energy Committee, it was a standing room only crowd of lawmakers, lobbyists and anti-nuclear activists.

NRC Senior Manager David Lew told the committee he couldn’t comment on pending legislation. He did say that his agency will cooperate with the state on the safety audit.

(Lew) “The NRC will be willing to work with state and congressional delegation in terms of what can be done. But we would want to do that within the boundaries of our reactor oversight process, and not go outside that boundary.”

(Dillon) Lawmakers were alarmed last year by the catastrophic collapse of a Vermont Yankee cooling tower. More recently, Yankee returned to full power after failing to fix a small leak that allows water from the Connecticut River to flow into its cooling system.

Lew told the committee that the cooling tower collapse did not affect plant safety.

(Lew) “While the cooling tower … collapse last year in August was a very public event. From a reactor risk, and what the NRC does, it’s a very, very, very low significant issue.”

(Dillon) The committee is trying to design an independent audit that will satisfy concerns that the plant should continue operating for another 20 years. Some on the committee want a more aggressive – and more independent – review of the Yankee plant.

The NRC’s promise to cooperate did not satisfy everyone.

(Klein) “Listening to them is like listening to a stonewall.”

(Dillon) East Montpelier Democrat Tony Klein says the study that the legislature designs has to go beyond a normal NRC review.

(Klein) “And I asked them whether or not they would step up their level of scrutiny for plants that were operating long after than what were designed for. Do they change their way of doing things? And I think the answer I got was no. That it was business as usual. And I don’t think that extending a plant for 20 years at a 20% operational level is business as usual.”

(Dillon) But Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien says the Douglas Administration is satisfied with the NRC response.

(O’Brien) “Using the reactor oversight process – which is a vastly different process than it was five years ago, ten years ago – is fine. What’s important is that they have pledged to tailor their inspection to discrete concerns, or areas, within Vermont Yankee that we will identify with them.”

(Dillon) O’Brien says it’s important that whatever study the legislature designs provides assurance that the plant is safe and reliable.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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