NRC Recommends Safety Upgrades

07/15/11 7:34AM By John Dillon
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(Host) A federal review prompted by the recent Japanese nuclear disaster recommends that plants such as Vermont Yankee adopt new safety upgrades.

Vermont Yankee says it doesn't yet know how much the changes will cost.

VPR's John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The earthquake and tsunami that struck last March disabled emergency generators and left the Japanese reactors without power from the electric grid.

(Sheehan) "So they had no ability to get power to the pumps to get the water in to the fuel in the reactor covered and cooled."

(Dillon) Neil Sheehan is a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

(Sheehan) "So that is going to be a primary focus: How do we increase the ability to get power to these sites."

(Dillon) An NRC task force says that in light of the Japanese disaster, U.S. plants should have systems in place to keep fuel cool for 72 hours.

The task force also made specific recommendations for U.S. reactors, such as Vermont Yankee, that share the same design as the stricken Japanese nuclear power plants.

The commission says vents need to be strengthened so the hydrogen gas can be released before it explodes. Neil Sheehan:

(Sheehan) "Essentially the issue is if they have melting of fuel, it can lead to production of hydrogen. And as we saw at Fukishima Dai'ichi, that led to explosions."

(Dillon) Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith says the plant already installed hardened vents - a modification he says was made in the 1980s.

But Sheehan says the Japanese reactors had similar vents - but that they didn't work when they were supposed to. So the NRC wants the owners of reactors like Yankee to show that the vents can operate in the extreme heat and pressure of an accident.

(Sheehan) "They have these vents. What can they do to ensure that they're going to be available and properly functioning during an event like this."

(Dillon) Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen is a frequent critic of the Yankee design. He says the vents were installed because the reactor containment itself was inadequate.

But opening the vents, he says, defeats the purpose of the containment structure itself, which is designed to contain radiation.

(Gundersen) "The industry's position is that letting the radiation out is better than blowing the containment up. And my opinion is that neither are acceptable and that the containment is the problem, and that it either needs to be fixed - strengthened - or shut down."

(Dillon) Gundersen says all the changes recommended by the NRC will cost Yankee about $100 million. That's on top of other expensive repairs needed if the plant operates for another 20 years. Gundersen has a prediction about Entergys Vermont Yankee's response:

(Gundersen) "I think if Vermont Yankee is allowed to operate, the net effect will be it'll be too costly to make the repairs and Entergy will make an economic decision to shut it down."

(Dillon) Entergy is still committed to keeping the plant operating for another 20 years. Yankee spokesman Larry Smith says the industry wants to work with the NRC to implement the changes. He says it's too early to come up with an accurate cost estimate.

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

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