Official Calls For More Aggressive Vermont Yankee Monitoring

05/27/10 7:34AM By John Dillon
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AP/Jason R. Henske
The main reactor building at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont

(Host) Vermont Yankee automatically shut down Wednesday, just a couple of days after it was restarted following a refueling outage.

Plant officials say they're investigating, but it looks like a switch yard outside the plant was the cause.

Before the shutdown, the plant was returning to normal after a winter of mishaps and controversy.

But repercussions continue from a radiation leak. And a state official is calling for a more aggressive monitoring program to ensure that any future leaks are discovered sooner.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) During the 29-day outage, 1,600 technicians worked around the clock to install new uranium fuel rods and to upgrade reactor components.

Late last week, Yankee officials disclosed that that the radioactive substance Strontium 90 was in the soil near the site of a radioactive leak.

Strontium is considered one of the more hazardous isotopes produced in nuclear reactors. One reason is if it's ingested, it lodges in bones. Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer who advises the Legislature, says it's bad stuff, especially for children.

(Gundersen) "Strontium, once it's locked up in a bone, stays for 30 or 40 years. And same with your teeth. So, it's a particular problem in fast-growing organisms like kids."

(Dillon) But the radioactive substance has not been found off site or in monitoring wells at Vermont Yankee.

Gundersen says even if the strontium stays where it is, it's still a concern because it will cost more to clean up the reactor after it's shut down.

(Gundersen) "At Connecticut Yankee they had an undetected pipe leak that released Strontium into the soil, and it raised the decommissioning costs by hundreds of millions of dollars. So even if there's no health consequences, the cost to decommission the plant could easily go up by hundreds of millions of dollars."  

(Dillon) Last winter's leak came as Yankee lobbied the Legislature for permission to operate for another 20 years. The Senate denied that request, but Yankee will be back next year. Spokesman Larry Smith says expensive repairs made to the steam dryer during and other equipment the refueling outage got the plant in shape to run many years into the future.

(Smith) "We are still planning on receiving a federal license to continue operation of the plant for 20 years. And we're still on the course to get legislative approval and a certificate of public good from the Public Service Board to continue operations for another 20 years. Everything we're doing at the plant is in preparation for operating that facility safely and reliably for, well, another 22 years at this point."

(Dillon) Gundersen, the legislative consultant on nuclear issues, says he was impressed with the work that was accomplished during the outage.

(Gundersen) "They did do a couple of significant improvements that will make it run better for several more years."

(Dillon) But state officials want Yankee to strengthen its monitoring program in order to catch any radiation leaks. Bill Irwin is the state's radiological health chief. He says Yankee has at least 40 underground piping systems and many more pipes that run through concrete vaults.

(Irwin) "These are systems that carry radioactive liquids, sometimes steam, and they are systems that we believe ought to be a part of a very thorough and frequent inspection process. And it's probably a combination of different kinds of techniques."

(Dillon) The need for more aggressive testing is pointed out in a recent engineering report done for the state. The consultants said that the radiation leaks at Vermont Yankee could have started two years ago. The report noted that one clue was the presence of sink holes on the site that indicated leaking water had saturated the soil.

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

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