VY: Safety could slip, but within fed limits
By Susan Smallheer
Herald Staff | November 16,2005
BRATTLEBORO — Entergy Nuclear acknowledged Tuesday that a proposed power increase at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant would reduce safety margins — but not below federal standards.
Entergy project manager Craig Nichols made that statement Tuesday during a daylong hearing before the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. The independent advisory group is examining several technical issues raised by Entergy's plans to increase power production by 110 megawatts, or 20 percent.
The morning was devoted to technical aspects of the project and the afternoon was set aside for public comment. Today, the state Department of Public Service will present its technical concerns with the power boost, which it says will reduce the margin of safety for the emergency core cooling pumps.
Graham Wallis, chairman of the advisory committee and a professor at Dartmouth College's Thayer School of Engineering, agreed the reactor would still be within federal operating standards but the safety margin would be smaller.
"You haven't maintained the margin, but you haven't crossed the limit," Wallis told Nichols.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's own Web site identifies corrosion, vibration, cracking and over-pressure concerns as problems associated with power boosts, and the advisory committee has earlier raised questions of its own on the pressure issue.
More than 50 residents from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts testified Tuesday afternoon. All urged the committee to reject the power increase.
At times during the afternoon session, more than 100 people filtered into the ballroom at the Quality Inn in Brattleboro to listen to the testimony.
Residents said the 33-year-old Vermont Yankee reactor in Vernon was unsafe at any level, but that the increased pressures of the increased production would make their lives less safe.
Most residents asked the technical advisory group for an independent, in-depth review of several safety systems at the plant — similar to the inspection at Maine Yankee, which discovered costly problems ultimately leading to the plant's closure.
"Why not give us an independent safety assessment and make everybody happy?" asked Cole Simanson of Wilmington.
Jill Neitlich of Wardsboro said she was a psychotherapist and that many of her clients lived in "terror" something going wrong at Vermont Yankee.
"Would you put your child on a school bus that hadn't been inspected for 30 years?" she asked.
"We feel we are talking to the walls. You are our last resort," said Phil Allard of Deerfield, Mass., not far from Vermont Yankee.
Residents asked whether any of the committee members lived near a nuclear power plant or within the 10-mile evacuation zone.
Members of the nine-member board said they did live near a reactor, but not within the 10-mile zone.
Many residents raised perennial concerns about the disposal of high-level radioactive waste and the problems associated with evacuating thousands of residents in the event of an accident.
During the entire public session, only two people spoke in favor of the power boost — former Gov. Thomas Salmon of Rockingham and an Entergy Nuclear engineer.
Salmon, who at one time was chairman of Green Mountain Power, formerly one of Vermont Yankee's owners, said the reactor was one of the few sources of locally produced power and valuable to the state.
John Daugherty of Chesterfield, N.H., an Entergy engineer, said he was able to change his Dutch relatives' minds last year when he pointed out that nuclear power didn't add to the toxic effects of greenhouse gases.
Entergy spokesman Robert Williams said the renovations and retrofitting at Vermont Yankee had increased the safety margins in some areas of the reactor's operation, but said it was true that in some areas the margins were smaller.
Williams said that, even with the reduction, "that's perfectly OK to operate."
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said that while the margin was reduced, the plant would still be able to operate safely. He said he didn't know exactly how much the safety margins had been reduced.
Contact Susan Smallheer at email@example.com.