Nuclear plant damage is worse than reported

Free Press Staff Writer: Sam Hemingway, August 24, 2007

A cooling tower structure at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant that partially collapsed Tuesday underwent a full inspection as recently as this spring and was found to be in good condition, a company spokesman said Thursday.

"It was determined acceptable for continued operation," said Rob Williams, spokesman for plant owner Entergy Nuclear.

Williams said the collapse, which occurred Tuesday afternoon and left a gaping hole in the side of the structure, caused Entergy to reduce power output by 50 percent until repairs are carried out.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said the tower collapse does not pose a safety threat. NRC officials said the water that spilled from the tower pipe is used to cool a condenser and never comes in contact with the plant's nuclear reactor.

The incident at the Vernon plant prompted the New England Coalition, a Brattleboro nuclear watchdog group, and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group to demand that the plant be shut down immediately.

"Entergy should terminate operations until we have a resolution of this issue," said Ray Shadis, the New England Coalition's technical adviser. "If one part of the cooling tower support can collapse, it's likely that there could be a collapse ready to happen somewhere else. That is a safety concern."

Also Thursday, the state's congressional delegation called for an investigation into the cause of the collapse and, in a statement, prodded the NRC to pursue the matter aggressively.

"The NRC has not yet committed to undertaking a thorough investigation of the safety related (to) cooling towers cell(s) that are located on the same site and could potentially have similar structural issues," the statement said. "We find this extremely troubling."

Gov. Jim Douglas said he has asked the Public Safety Department to look into the incident and report back to him. He said Vermonters should understand that the tower problem did not pose a risk of a radioactive release.

"I'll wait for the report and take it from there," Douglas said. "Certainly, that kind of structural problem is of great concern to me and I'm sure to everyone."

Williams said the cooling towers reduce the temperature of water used to cool the plant's condenser to a proper level before the water is returned to the Connecticut River, which runs alongside the plant.

The plant has two tower structures, called the east and west cooling towers. The damage occurred in a portion of the west tower structure identified as Cell 2-4, one of 11 cylindrical units where the water drips down and is cooled by giant fans.

Another of the cells in the west tower structure can serve as a back-up cooling device for reactor water, but was undamaged, said Jamie Benjamin, an NRC inspector.

Williams said the collapse of Cell 2-4 occurred Tuesday afternoon between 3 and 4 p.m. Water poured from the broken 52-inch-diameter pipe for an estimated 90 minutes.

Williams said plant workers checked the structure Aug. 13, after an odd noise was heard coming from the building, and again on Sunday, but no problem was found. Monday, wooden beams that hold the water pipe in place were seen bowing, he said.

Also of concern were photographs of the collapse that were circulated on the Internet on Wednesday evening.

Williams said he did not know who took the photographs of the partial collapse and the water pouring from the pipe.

"I haven't distributed any photos, but I have no reason to believe that a security breach occurred," Williams said.

Shadis said he was sent the photos by what he called an anonymous third party and posted them online.

Whoever took the photos must have been close to the structure at the time, Shadis said. If the photographer was someone who had managed to get onto plant property without permission, that would represent a "complete security failure," Shadis said.

"I was flabbergasted when I first saw them," he said of the photos. "I had thought, from the way the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Entergy had described it, that the damage was confined to the interior of the tower. That pipe was a half-inch thick and it just snapped."

Sarah Hoffman, director of public advocacy for the Public Service Department, said the state would have concerns if someone had entered the plant grounds to take photos without Entergy's knowledge or permission. "We'd have a problem with that," she said.

Hoffman said her department has begun an investigation into the incident. As part of the investigation, newly hired state nuclear engineer Uldis Vanags, visited the Vernon plant Thursday.

Shadis' organization had raised questions about the structural integrity of the two cooling tower structures in 2004, when Entergy was seeking state Public Service Board permission to upgrade the power output at Vermont Yankee by 20 percent.

As a result of the group's concern, Entergy hired a company to undertake a complete inspection of the two structures in early 2005. The study found no sign of problems and won the backing of the NRC.

"They basically determined there was no degradation or deterioration of the towers, that they were still in good shape," NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said. "We found their report to be satisfactory."

Shadis said he suspects the weight of the new, heavier fans installed in the cooling towers to accommodate the upgrade in the plant's power output, plus the effects of the increased power generation itself, might have speeded up a deterioration of the structure's supports.

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