Regulators Sanction Yankee Over Cooling Test

07/30/10 5:52PM By John Dillon
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(Host) Federal regulators have sanctioned Vermont Yankee for a safety violation during a recent test of the emergency cooling system.

As VPR's John Dillon reports, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the mistake did not threaten public safety.

(Dillon) The mishap occurred when Yankee was shut down for refueling in May. Workers were testing the emergency core cooling system and inadvertently allowed about 21-hundred gallons of water to drain away from the reactor vessel.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission blamed the incident on human error. And Yankee spokesman Larry Smith says the company admits responsibility.

(Smith) "We accept the finding of the NRC, do not plan to contest and agree that we have taken corrective action so that will not occur in the future."

(Dillon) The NRC said the water drained from the reactor into steam lines because valves were mistakenly left open. But the NRC inspection report says the violation had low safety significance.

Ray Shadis is technical advisor to the New England Coalition, an anti-nuclear group.

He disagrees with the NRC's conclusion that the incident posed little risk to safety.

(Shadis) "They lost two feet of coolant, and that's significant. This is an accident that progressed over a period of approximately an hour, I think something like 55 minutes. And they didn't have a clue as to what was happening."

(Dillon) But David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the NRC was correct in its assessment. He says that because of the way the plumbing works at the power plant, the incident could not have resulted in a much more dangerous condition of water completely draining from the reactor core.

(Lochbaum) "So it was something that shouldn't have happened, and because of that the NRC was right to sanction the company for it. But because it couldn't have caused, directly caused, serious damage, the fact that it was the lowest of the sanctions was probably right for the problem involved."

(Dillon) Lochbaum said Yankee could face tougher penalties in the future.

(Lochbaum) "So the next time if something like this were to happen, basically they've used up the get-out-of-jail-free card, and the NRC sanction next time will be much more severe. So that's why if even on the surface it seems like a slap on the wrist, it does have some import if they were to repeat a problem like this in the next couple of years."

(Dillon) But Ray Shadis at the New England Coalition says the public should be concerned because the incident affected the emergency core cooling system - an essential component for plant safety.

And he says the NRC appears not to be looking at the broader question of whether the attitude of Yankee management may be responsible for problems at the nuclear plant.

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

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