published by WISE News Communique on March 27, 1992
(369.3628) WISE-Amsterdam The 185-megawatt PWR, located in Rowe, Massachusetts near the New York and Vermont borders, had been shut down temporarily since September for safety tests on its embrittled reactor pressure vessel. The decision to shut it down permanently is a major blow to the US nuclear industry. The plant was supposed to be the first to apply for federal relicensing as it had been selected by the industry in 1988 as a test case for extending the standard 40-year operating license granted by the NRC. At the time, the owners dismissed questions about the safety of the aged metal containment vessel, saying that any problems could be easily fixed. Now they acknowledge that just finding out how extensive the problems are would be much more expensive than they had thought. The decision, they say, was primarily due to economics.
EMBRITTLEMENT: AN INDUSTRY-WIDE PROBLEM
According to Andrew C. Kadak, president and chief executive of Yankee Atomic, "The decision to close the plant was not based on technical or safety issues. It was based on the cost of restarting the plant and the availability of lower cost power. But Robert Pollard, a safety engineer with UCS, said, "They're being somewhat dishonest in saying that 'this is not a safety decision but an economic decision.' It's an economic decision forced upon them by a safety issue."
The reactor itself had a book value of only US$28 million (small by current standards) and the company had already spent US$10 million in the last two years for long-term improvements and preparation for tests on the reactor vessel. Just determining the vessel's condition was expected to cost about $23 million. If the vessel needed replacement or annealing (a process that is supposed temper and strengthen the metal), the costs could have risen to $100 million or more. With no US precedent in this area, there was no guarantee that replacement of the vessel was either politically (because of potential worker exposures) or technically feasible, and annealing has not been tried in the US.
Whatever the motivations of Yankee Atomic's board for closing the plant, its decision is a victory for UCS and the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NECNP), a group based in nearby Vermont which, along with UCS, had filed a petition for the plant's immediate shutdown last summer. And the fact that the nuclear power industry had chosen the plant as a good example of a reactor that "deserves" to keep running can't help but make the decision to close it a significant one. As Mark Mills, an electricity consultant in Washington, D.C., told a journalist for the New York Times, "It has implications because of what the industry did. They set themselves up as a bellwether. Then they hung themselves." The licensing extension is an important part of the industry's survival plan. No US utility has ordered a nuclear power plant since the 1970's, and it is unlikely that any will in the near future.
Local anti-nuclear activists, who have been working to shut the plant down for more than a decade, clearly see the decision as a victory. Nevertheless, their joy at hearing the news was somewhat lessened by some of the implications of the plant's closure. For one thing, there is a great deal of concern for the workers who will lose their jobs. For another, there are now worries about whether the reactor can be safely dismantled.
One local group, the Citizen's Awareness Network (CAN) in nearby Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, cancelled a celebration/demonstration it had called for 29 February at the gates of the plant. "we thought it would be provocative," said one member, Harvey Schaktman. By the end of the year, it is expected that 150 of the plant's 220 workers will be laid off. "We're going to come out with a public statement advocating worker retraining and alternative uses for the site and the highly skilled labor that [was utilized there] before the workers have to move to a nuke plant somewhere else," Schaktman told a journalist with the US weekly The Guardian (11 March). "Maybe some other industries can be developed in this area to put these people to work here." The Guardiann noted that the closing will have a major economic impact on the town of Rowe. Yankee Atomic, which began operating the plant in 1960, held more than US$700,000 in contracts there and paid almost that much in local taxes n over one-quarter of the town's annual budget. The majority of its employees live there and in the surrounding communities. But for many of Yankee Rowe's neighbors, the dangers posed by the plant just weren't worth the risks. When UCS and NECNP called for the plant's closure last summer, at least a dozen of the surrounding towns passed resolutions backing the shutdown in one form or another.
Plant opponents' other concerns relate to the possibility of an accident happening during the dismantling process. This process is projected to begin around 1993 and cost over $180 million. As Schaktman points out, the nuclear industry has little experience in shutting down reactors; in the US, 15 small demonstration and commercial reactors have been retired, but only one commercial reactor (Shippingport in Pennsylvania) has actually been dismantled. Yankee Rowe may become the industry's research project on the unknowns of decommissioning. Says Schaktman, "The dismantlement may be as dangerous as the operating plant".
According to Schaktman, CAN's work is just beginning. Plant opponents say that spent fuel rods from the plant, stored in closely packed pools without adequate containment, could go critical if an accident causes the reactor to lose coolant. They also worry about radioactive residues remaining in soil and river sediments in the area.
As if all that isn't enough, CAN is also dealing with health effects of nuclear power operation. The group has been pushing for a health study of the area since last spring, when the US Environmental Protection Agency temporarily allowed the plant to dump used cooling water into the nearby Deerfield River. "We're leaning on [the Massachusetts Department of Public Health] to do a study because we're exposed to Rowe and Vernon," says Schaktman. (Vernon refers to Vermont Yankee's old nuclear plant, just across the border in Vermont.) "They're now doing a pre-study before they decide whether to do a full-blown epidemiological study. Apparently, they've already found clusters of Down's syndrome and brain cancer."
Contact: NECNP, PO Box 545, Brattleboro, VT 05302, USA; tel: +1-802-257-0336. UCS, 1424 -
16th St. NW, Washington DC 20036.
[Unfortunately, we do not have an address for CAN, but you can get in touch with them through NECNP. Also, for information on the UCS/ NECNP petition to the NRC and embrittlement, contact either of those groups.]