State May Request Hearing with NRC on Vermont Yankee Safety Concerns

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(Host) State officials are worried that federal regulators may compromise safety as they review Vermont Yankee’s plans to increase power. They may ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a hearing to consider the issue.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The safety question centers around the water pressure that’s required for the emergency pumps to cool the reactor in case of a serious accident.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing Entergy-Vermont Yankee’s plans for a 20 percent increase in power. The additional power will make the water circulating in the plant even hotter. And at those higher temperatures, the pumps are less efficient. The problem is that if there’s not enough pressure, the pumps will suck bubbles of air and steam – not water – if they’re needed to cool a runaway reactor.

Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien says he’s concerned that the NRC may undermine a key safety standard that relies on redundant systems to prevent an accident from getting out of control.

(O’Brien) “A term of art in the industry is what’s called ‘defense and depth.’ And this seems to fly in the face of that. Now if we can be shown by the NRC and of course Entergy as the licensee here, that that’s not the case, that’s fine. But at the present time we haven’t been convinced and protecting the public’s interest tells us that we need to be vigilant here until such time that we are satisfied.”

(Dillon) The NRC may allow Yankee to assume that enough pressure would build up in the reactor containment to keep the pumps working during an accident.

Last December, the state nuclear engineer asked the NRC for a detailed explanation of the safety implications of the pressure issue. The NRC replied late last month. O’Brien wasn’t satisfied by the answer.

(O’Brien) “We found the response to be entirely lacking from the NRC, and just did not satisfy what we were looking to determine. So for that reason, we see a need to request a hearing and try to get to the bottom of this issue.”

(Dillon) Rob Williams, a spokesman for Entergy-Vermont Yankee, says the federal agency has allowed the operators of other nuclear plants the same leeway on the containment pressure issue. He says the debate now is between the state and federal regulators.

(Williams) “But this technical issue or this assumption has been allowed at other plants in the country, and quite a few in fact. But our analysis that went into this is a result of 10 months of work by engineers at Vermont Yankee and by engineers at the reactor manufacturer.”

(Dillon) Public Service Commissioner O’Brien says the state has already hired outside legal counsel to help with the issue before the NRC.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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