Officials Study Re-locating VT Yankee Pipes

06/07/10 7:34AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) Experts say relocating buried pipes above ground may be part of the solution to radioactive leaks at nuclear power plants around the country.

But some Vermont officials question whether it would be worth relocating the pipes at Vermont Yankee until they decide if its license will be extended.

VPR's Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Democratic lawmakers demanded that Yankee's pipes be moved above ground after a new radioactive leak was found, just as the plant was restarting from a refueling outage.

A more extensive underground leak of radioactive tritium was discovered this winter. Plant officials said other buried pipes had been inspected during the outage.

But a one-eighth-inch hole in a drain pipe in the same underground system that caused the earlier problems, went undetected.

Outgoing Senate President Peter Shumlin, a candidate for governor, called for action.

(Shumlin) "Shut the plant down, replace all the underground pipes and then restart it knowing that the pipes won't leak anymore."

(Keese) Shumlin says that's what's planned at the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey, which has also dealt with tritium leaking into groundwater. That plant is spending $12 million to move its buried pipes into above-ground vaults that can be checked for leaks more easily.

Neil Sheehan of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says federal officials are monitoring the work.

(Neil) "That plant is owned by Exelon and this is something they're talking about starting at Oyster Creek and then looking to do at other plants that they own. And certainly the rest of the industry would be looking at that as well."

(Keese) Sheehan says 34 of the country's 104 nuclear plants have experienced contamination from underground pipes.

Most of that is from tritium, which regulators don't consider a serious health threat. But other, more lethal radioactive elements have also been found, including at Vermont Yankee.

Sheehan says an NRC task force is reevaluating the agency's requirements for monitoring underground systems. But he says it's premature to call for wholesale replacement.

(Sheehan) "We will have to wait and see exactly what that task force comes out with because its work is still underway. We don't know exactly what they're going to recommend, but it will certainly get attention at the highest levels by the NRC."

(Keese) Sheehan says the task force could have recommendations later this month.

Congress is also scrutinizing the NRC's policies on monitoring underground pipes.

Vermont regulators are also studying the issue.

David O'Brien is the state's Public Service Commissioner.

(O'Brien) "There certainly is plenty of evidence that some of these pipes were difficult to get to and the excavation of the site was very complicated for the people on the ground."

(Keese) But O'Brien stopped short of recommending that the Vernon plant's underground pipes should immediately be moved.

He points out that Vermont Yankee is scheduled to close in two years, unless its operating license is extended.

He says it may not make sense to rebuild the piping system if Yankee isn't going to operate for another 20 years.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.

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