Yankee Plant's Reliability Questioned

10/28/09 5:50PM By John Dillon
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AP File Photo/Toby Talbot
(Host) A legislative consultant says Vermont Yankee failed to disclose that some of its underground pipes have leaked radioactive material into the Connecticut River.

The consultant also says that Yankee is not making much progress on improvements needed to assure the plant's reliability.

VPR's John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Arnie Gundersen is a nuclear engineer hired by the Legislature to keep track of Vermont Yankee.

Yankee needs the Legislature's approval to operate for another 20 years after its scheduled shutdown in 2012. And Gundersen this week delivered a report that examined issues that could affect the plant's reliability in the future.

Gundersen told lawmakers he was surprised to learn that Yankee has underground pipes that are contaminated with radioactive materials. Gundersen said Yankee had not told a state oversight panel that it had problems with the pipes.

(Gundersen) We got the wrong information, but I did want to let the Legislature know that we gave you the wrong information. We said there was no underground pipe that was contaminated, and in fact there is. 

(Dillon) Gundersen said he only learned of the contaminated pipes from testimony by the Vermont Department of Health.

(Gundersen) I don't want to attribute whether or not there's any motive behind it, but it was missed and I owe it to the Legislature to tell them.

(Dillon) Yankee spokesman Rob Williams blamed the issue on miscommunication. He said when the company reported to the oversight panel that it didn't have any underground contaminated pipe it was referring to pipes included in a federal safety program. It did not mention storm drains that have carried contaminated water to the Connecticut River.

(Williams) Our storm drains are included in our inspection program, but they are not safety related and they don't normally carry contaminated water. However, there have been instances in years past where they've been minute particles of cobalt actually identified in the river sediment.

(Dillon) According to Williams, the contamination ended in 1993. Still, Gundersen questions why Yankee didn't tell the state earlier about the pipe issue.

(Gundersen) We asked and their response back was that there was one pipe in the chemistry lab that had leaked into the earth under the power plant, and that pipe had been plugged years ago.... So if they identified a minor pipe in the chemistry lab and they missed all of the piping that drains all of the roofs on the plant, I was surprised.

(Dillon) One concern about the pipe problem is that it could mean Yankee has to make extensive repairs. Meanwhile, Gundersen also investigated the progress Yankee has made to address 80 recommendations to improve the plant's reliability.

He concluded that Yankee has gotten off to a slow start. He said that by September, Yankee had developed plans to cover only 18% of the recommendations. But Williams at Vermont Yankee said the company is making progress.

(Williams) Our commitment is to methodically address each one. And at this point, we're still more than two years before our license renewal and we've address more than 25 recommendations to the satisfaction of the state regulators.

(Dillon) But Gundersen said the plant is supposed to develop plans by the end of the year. He said it has a lot of work to do to meet that schedule.

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

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