MONTPELIER -- Two missing pieces of a highly radioactive nuclear fuel rod may have been lost in 1979 and may never be found, officials said yesterday.
Engineers at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant discovered the pieces were missing this week when they looked inside the stainless steel container that documents showed housed them.
"They weren't there," said Rob Williams, spokesman for Entergy Nuclear, which owns Vermont Yankee.
The last time the pieces can be accounted for was in 1979 when they were pulled from the Vermont Yankee atomic reactor. At the time they were part of a 12-foot-long tube that was filled with enriched uranium pellets. The zirconium tube, though, had developed holes and was leaking; it is possible that the pieces were cut off for testing to determine why or simply broke off the main tube.
At that point, documents show, the pieces -- one the size of a pencil and the other pencil-thin and about 17 inches long -- were supposedly placed in a specially designed container and placed in the 40-foot-deep pool at the plant used to store used fuel rods.
Williams said an inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggested this week that engineers make sure the pieces were there. The inventory was in response to the discovery four years ago that two fuel rods were missing from Connecticut's Milestone Unit 1 nuclear plant. Those fuel rods were never found.
Engineers for Vermont Yankee and inspectors for the NRC have launched an investigation to find the missing pieces, which are highly radioactive and would be fatal to anyone who came in contact with them.
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency did not believe "there is a threat to the public at this point." He said the most likely options are that the pieces are still in the fuel pool or had been sent to a testing laboratory or a low-level nuclear waste disposal facility.
The NRC issued a statement saying the incident "does not pose a threat to public health and safety as it is highly unlikely that the material is in the public domain. Given the extensive array of radiation detectors at the site, it is very probable that the potentially missing fuel fragments are in a location designed to deal with radioactive waste," the NRC said.
But US Representative Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, a critic of the nuclear industry, said the missing fuel at Vermont Yankee was especially troubling coming on the heels of the missing Millstone fuel rods.
"If nuclear reactor operators are not maintaining strong controls over nuclear materials, and are unable to account for their location, how can the public be assured that these sensitive and potentially dangerous materials are not falling into the wrong hands?" he wrote in a letter to the NRC chairman, Nils J. Diaz.
Governor James Douglas said he was troubled by the announcement.
"Vermonters, and I among them, have lost some confidence in the operation of the nuclear power plant at Vernon," he said. The announcement comes as Vermont Yankee is seeking to increase its output by 20 percent.