Head of US nuclear regulatory agency hears from critics who want Vermont plant shuttered

Venturing into unfriendly territory, the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sat down Wednesday with representatives of seven anti-nuke groups who say the agency has fallen down on the job in keeping tabs on the problem-plagued Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

In a 90-minute round-table session, Gregory Jaczko endured blistering criticism over federal regulators' response to leaks of radioactive material at the plant, a 2007 cooling tower collapse and misrepresentations made by owner Entergy Corp. about the existence of underground pipes carrying radioactive material.

"We need a real cop on the beat, and right now we feel that we don't have one," said James Moore, clean energy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Jaczko, who took over as NRC chairman last year, sought out the meeting with plant opponents as part of a Vermont visit that included a three-hour tour of Vermont Yankee — his first there — and meetings with its executives and employees. Those sessions were closed to the public at Vermont Yankee's request and the commission's agreement.

The 650-megawatt nuclear plant in Vernon, which opened in 1972, produces electricity used throughout New England, but it has been under fire over a series of equipment failures, operations glitches and leaks as owner Entergy Corp. seeks to renew its license, which expires in 2012.

Most recently, a leak of radioactive tritium in two underground pipes inside a concrete tunnel, allowed tritium-containing water to overflow a floor drain clogged with debris and mud and seep through a wall joint.

The tritium contaminated soil and groundwater around the plant and took several months to plug, ratcheting up calls for immediate closure of the plant.

Tritium is known to cause cancer in humans when ingested in large amounts.

In February, the Vermont Senate voted to block the plant's re-licensing, though Vermont Yankee's owners hope to get a second vote in the Legislature's next session, in January.

In May, plant officials revealed that in cleaning up the tritium leak, they found strontium-90, which is a more potent radioactive isotope, in soil near where the leak occurred. Strontium-90 is a byproduct of nuclear fission that has been linked to cancer and leukemia.

On Wednesday, Jaczko listened as representatives of the anti-nuke groups one by one recited what they described as a litany of lapses in federal regulation of the plant and its owners. This, they said, included the NRC downplaying the seriousness of the cooling tower collapse, its failure to take quick action on the tritium leak and its inaction on other plant safety issues.

"We're here not because we're friendly people and like to look at nuclear power issues," said Debra Katz, executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network. "We're here because we see systemic mismanagement at Vermont Yankee, we see delayed maintenance issues, we see repeated misrepresentations to state officials."

Katz and others said they were especially leery about whether Vermont Yankee and the NRC would adequately keep the plant operating safely in the months leading up to its closing, if that happens in 2012 as scheduled.

Other groups represented at the meeting were Nuclear Free Vermont by 2012, the Safe & Green Campaign, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance and the New England Coalition

Jaczko said the pre-closing safety of plant operations was of particular concern to the NRC. He denied allegations that it didn't adequately react to Entergy Corp.'s acknowledgment that it misled state regulators by saying Vermont Yankee had no underground piping capable of carrying radioactive material.

He said there is a "trust gap" between Vermont residents and the NRC. He was interrupted when he started to say that problems with communications are to blame for some of the alleged failures of his agency.

"It's you guys not acting for our benefit and our safety," said Debra Stoleroff, a member of the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance, interrupting him. "If you want to gain our trust, just shut down Vermont Yankee."

In a brief question-and-answer session with reporters after the meeting, Jaczko would not say when the NRC will rule on Vermont Yankee's proposed license extension.

As for immediate closing, he said there had been no incidents at the plant that would warrant an order to close, as far as the NRC is concerned.and pay more for electricity.