Yankee gets closer to licensing defeat

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MONTPELIER (AP) -- A former nuclear engineer told lawmakers Thursday that the Vermont Yankee reactor should be shut down and a whistleblower raised new questions about what plant officials knew when about leaking radioactivity, as chances for the plant's relicensing weakened.

Vermont's troubled nuclear plant -- tied up in controversy over radioactive tritium leaking into groundwater and allegations that it misled regulators about whether it had pipes that carried tritium -- had another tough day at the Statehouse.

It culminated in the Senate Finance Committee's 7-0 vote to send to the floor a bill that would authorize the state Public Service Board to approve the plant's operation past the 2012 expiration of its current license. The committee did so without endorsing the bill, and it is expected to be defeated easily when it comes up for a vote Wednesday.

The day began with a former nuclear engineer sharply criticizing Vermont Yankee; its owner, New Orleans-based Entergy Corp.; and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in testimony to lawmakers.

"There's no justification for continuing to operate that plant," said Paul Blanche, an energy consultant based in Connecticut who has worked for several New England reactors. He accused both Entergy and the NRC of a "run-to-failure, fix-it-when-it-breaks mentality," saying he wouldn't get on a plane run by an airline with that approach.

Asked for comment in response, Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith said only, "He's entitled to his comments."

Also Thursday, state regulators and Vermont Yankee said they were taking "very seriously" an allegation, reportedly from a plant employee, that Vermont Yankee had leaked radioactivity into soil surrounding the plant two years before the current tritium leak was reported in January.

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Arnie Gundersen, a member of a special panel appointed by the Legislature to help determine Vermont Yankee's fitness for relicensing, told state regulators in an e-mail that he received a phone call Sunday from someone who only identified himself or herself as an employee of Vermont Yankee.

The employee said Vermont Yankee had had earlier leaks in the same area where engineers searching for the source of the current leak.

If the allegation is true, that would provide evidence that Vermont Yankee knew it had underground pipes carrying radioactive materials -- something senior plant officials denied last year in sworn testimony to the Public Service Board and presentations to lawmakers. It also would show the plant had neglected to mention the previous leaks in daily statements about the current one during the past month.

That could do more damage to the credibility of Vermont Yankee and Entergy. Gov. Jim Douglas said last month the plant had committed a "breach of trust" by making misleading statements about piping.

Steve Wark, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said in a statement that the new allegation is "extremely troubling. Given the current issues at Vermont Yankee, any information regarding leaks would have been helpful."

Wark said the department will work with state experts to determine whether the previous leak did occur.

Smith said he could not comment, but that the allegation would be investigated.


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