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Disaster raises fears on aging N.E. plants

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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MONTPELIER — The Japan nuclear crisis could not have come at a worse moment for New England’s aging nuclear plants — heightening public concern about their safety at the very moment they seek to extend the plants’ operating lives.

Vermont Yankee and the Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, Mass., are nearing the end of their 40-year licenses and have sought approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate two more decades, as has the newer Seabrook Station in New Hampshire. The Yankee and Pilgrim reactors have the same design as the troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. And yesterday, President Obama called for a safety review of all US nuclear plants.

The timing is particularly bad for Vermont Yankee, which is in Vernon, near the Massachusetts border. The Japan quake came just one day after the NRC approved its 20-year extension, and its owners are now in the position of having to persuade an already deeply mistrustful state Legislature that the plant should be allowed to generate electricity after its license expires next year.

“I know Vermont Yankee is safe . . . but this has given everyone pause,’’ said Vermont Representative Mike Hebert, the main sponsor of a House bill filed two weeks ago to strip the Legislature of its singular power in the United States to have a say in the relicensing of a nuclear plant — authority the state Senate used last year to vote to close Vermont Yankee in 2012.

In the last week, officials of all three plants have sought to reassure the public their plants are well prepared for any crisis Mother Nature can hurl at them. All three can withstand significant, sustained flooding, and a greater than magnitude-6 earthquake, which is stronger than any known to have occurred where they are.

The Japan plant’s problems began when last Friday’s magnitude-9.0 quake and tsunami likely caused a power failure and disabled backup generators, shutting down cooling systems. Entergy-owned Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim have eight hours of battery power in case of an electrical outage, diesel generators to recharge those batteries, and additional generators to run the plant with fuel located in earthquake- and flood-proof areas. Seabrook, owned by NextEra Energy Resources, has similar redundant systems. Many of those systems in the plants were also upgraded after 9/11. It is unclear whether the backup systems at the area plants are similar to or more robust that Japan’s.

Critics say the plant operators are creating a false sense of security because some safety problems NRC inspectors find are not adequately addressed. For example, the New England Coalition, an antinuclear group, says the NRC found flooded safety-related electric cables at Vermont Yankee, but instead of requiring submersible cables or placement in dry locations, it merely required Vermont Yankee to periodically check the cables.

“The NRC chronically fails to enforce its own regulations,’’ said Ray Shadis, New England Coalition technical issues adviser.

NRC and Vermont Yankee officials strenuously disagreed that NRC was not following its own rules, with both saying the cables are rigorously checked regularly.

“We have for many years notified the industry of the need to check underground electrical cables for submergence, including whether, or to what degree, the cables are qualified to operate in such an environment. The plants have taken actions to address these concerns. . . . Vermont Yankee has made commitments to do these checks throughout the period of license renewal,’’ said Neil Sheehan, NRC spokesman, in a prepared statement.

Critics noted a public oversight board looking at Vermont Yankee’s reliability in 2009 concluded that if the plant were built now, it would not meet one seismic criterion that requires new plants to tolerate more forceful shaking in an earthquake.

Sheehan was unaware of the context of the earthquake report, but said: “I can say Vermont Yankee was built to withstand the largest earthquake in the area, historically, with additional safety margin on top of that.’’

The Japan crisis has sparked a global review of nuclear plants from China to Switzerland, and as of yesterday, the United States. Nuclear watchdogs and some politicians say the crisis should prompt the NRC to take a harder look at aging plants like Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim that have the same design as the most compromised reactor in Japan.

The design, known as a Mark 1, is considered vulnerable in part over fears that molten nuclear fuel could melt through the vessel, releasing radiation to the environment, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group. Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee both say they have an added ventilation system that helps protect against that vulnerability.

Like the Japan plant, Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee also place spent fuel rods — which must be immersed in water to prevent radioactive release — in a pool in upper levels of the building, where they could be more vulnerable to a sudden loss of coolant than those in other locations, critics say. The pools contain years of spent fuel rods, and they can heat up and emit enormous amounts of radiation when the water drains away — as appears to have happened in at least one Japanese reactor.

“I know if I were still involved with the NRC, Vermont Yankee is one of the plants I would want to take a harder look’’ because of its design, said Peter Bradford, a former member of the NRC who teaches at Vermont Law School. But he also cautioned: “We still don’t know what role the design has played’’ in Japan.

The NRC has allowed the relicensing of 63 plants, including Vermont Yankee, but because it has been focused on the Japanese crisis, it has not yet issued the license. Pilgrim, whose license also expires next year, and Seabrook, whose license expires in 2030, have also applied for relicensing.

But it is Vermont Yankee, which provides about one-third of the Green Mountain State’s power and 650 jobs, that is, by far, the most troubled of the three plants. Long-simmering antinuclear sentiment in the state accelerated after the plant received NRC permission to increase its power output by 20 percent in 2006.

The next year, a cooling tower partially collapsed. The plant’s safety was not compromised, but the events stoked public concerns about the adequacy of plant maintenance. Then last year, Entergy discovered elevated levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, leaking from underground pipes after company officials told state officials the pipes did not likely exist.

Other nuclear plants have been able to overcome local opposition because the NRC, not local legislators, has final say in whether the plants can be relicensed. Several years ago, the Vermont Legislature passed a law requiring the Yankee plant to get its approval to continue operating after next year. Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat who opposes the relicensing, said Entergy publicly supported the law at the time. Now, he said, it is no longer clear the plant can operate safely.

“Promises have been broken,’’ said Shumlin this week. He said there are abundant sources of other inexpensive energy, such as hydropower, that can replace the power plant.

Larry Smith, a Vermont Yankee spokesman, said he could not discuss whether Entergy would challenge the Legislature’s right to vote on relicensing, calling it a legal matter.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com