State board to consider Vermont Yankee shutdown

By Dave Gram
Associated Press Writer / February 26, 2010

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MONTPELIER, Vt.—Vermont utility regulators will consider revoking the operating license of the state's lone nuclear plant, as well as the less drastic step of a temporary shutdown while a leak of radioactive material at the plant is found and stopped.

That word came in a Public Service Board order issued late Thursday. Participants in cases involving the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant were notified on Friday.

Conservation Law Foundation, a New England environmental group, asked the three-member board on Jan. 25 to consider a temporary or permanent shutdown of the reactor. That followed word on Jan. 7 that the plant was leaking tritium, a radioactive isotope linked to cancer when ingested in high amounts. The following week Vermont Yankee officials were accused of misleading state regulators and lawmakers by saying the plant did not have the type of underground pipes that could carry tritium.

The board order opening a new investigation into the environmental group's requests followed a vote in the Vermont Senate on Wednesday to shut down Vermont Yankee when its current operating license expires in March of 2012. The board's order raised the possibility the plant would have to close before then. The plant's owner, Entergy Corp., had asked for a 20-year extension on the license.

"The continued leaks, false information and violations of the law are unacceptable," Sandra Levine, a senior attorney with the environmental group, said. "CLF is pleased the board has recognized it has the authority and the obligation to take action. Vermont Yankee should not be allowed to pollute with impunity."

A call to a plant spokesman for comment was not immediately returned. In papers filed with the board, Vermont Yankee's lawyer argued that only the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- not state authorities -- has the authority to regulate a nuclear plant's releases of radioactive materials. It said CLF had not provided any evidence to support either a temporary or permanent shutdown.

Also on Friday, Vermont Yankee and state Health Department officials announced that they had found cracks in concrete and plastic outer piping around a plant drain pipe that may be the source of the tritium leaking from the plant.

William Irwin, the state's radiological health chief, told lawmakers the cracks -- found in a building connected to the reactor where radioactive gasses are processed, "may be the major source, if not the only source," of the tritium found in groundwater monitoring wells.

Closure of Vermont Yankee likely would not have a serious impact on the power needs of the region. Although Vermont gets about a third of its power from Vermont Yankee, the reactor provides only about 2 percent of New England's electricity demand, according to Paul Peterson, a senior consultant with Synapse Energy Economics Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. The region currently has a power-generation surplus of 4,000-5,000 megawatts, meaning it could lose up to 16 percent of its generation and not face a power deficit.

"All indications are that the surplus will continue for the next several years," Peterson said.

Power authorities say however that new transmission lines may be needed in Vermont to avoid overload problems and new power sources are being sought to replace Vermont Yankee.

Vermont's utilities have been shopping aggressively for new power sources to replace Vermont Yankee. More than a year ago, Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell announced her company planned to reduce its reliance on Vermont Yankee and negotiate contracts with wind developers and other renewable sources.