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Yankee Rowe shutdown encourages U.S. activists

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#361
08/11/1991
Article

(November 8, 1991) Faced with a recommendation from the staff of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that the Yankee nuclear reactor in Rowe, Massachusetts be shut down, the Yankee Atomic Electric Co. (YAEC) "voluntarily" closed the plant on 1 October. "As you can imagine, Yankee disagrees with the NRC staff's conclusion recommending a shut-down," a YAEC spokesperson said. "However, being a responsible operator, we have voluntarily initiated an orderly shutdown." Nevertheless, this "responsible operator" immediately began an appeal process in an attempt to restart their trouble-plagued plant. On 11 October that appeal was denied by the NRC.

(361.3571) WISE Amsterdam - The decision is somewhat unusual for the NRC. The commission has so far shown itself to be more concerned with boosting nuclear power than with regulating it. That the decision comes now, at a time when the nuclear power industry is attempting to renew licenses for its aging first-generation plants, is especially important. The 31- year-old Yankee Rowe was widely considered to be a test case for this as its owner had planned to apply for a 20-year renewal in the near future. (See also following article.)

The NRC decision is a part of a long battle over the Yankee Rowe unit (a 180 MW PWR). Six months before, in a joint petition, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NECNP) had asked the NRC for an immediate shutdown of the plant. They charged that 30 years of neutron bombardment had made the vessel too brittle to withstand a pressurized thermal shock (PTS) accident. According to a UCS fact sheet, if the reactor lost coolant in an accident and its emergency core cooling system injected substantially cooler water into the vessel, "the combination of rapid cooling and pressurization can lead to cracking or rupture of the pressure vessel, in much the same way a glass dish hot from the oven would crack if doused in cold water."

Even though the NRC essentially admitted that the plant did not meet its own rules, it denied the petition. Instead, it said it would allow the plant to run until its refuelling date, then scheduled for 15 April 1992. Operation after that date was to be permitted only after uncertainties over the condition of the plant's reactor pressure vessel were resolved. Later, in a report that was to be released on 2 Oct., NRC staff reversed this decision, citing "reduced confidence" that the reactor's pressure vessel had "adequate margins against failure". Between that date and the original July decision, the US Congress' House Interior Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment had held hearings on the plant. UCS attorney Diane Curran, in her testimony before the subcommittee on 1 August, had attacked the Commission's reasoning and noted that the probability of an accident which would trigger a PTS accident is "the same level of risk" that caused the NRC to draw up regu-lations covering PTS accidents in the first place.

When and if the plant ever reopens is not clear. For sure, it will remain shut unless the company can supply con-vincing evidence that the unit's pressure vessel is less brittle than the NRC assumes. But so far, the NRC remains unconvinced by the various claims YAEC is making. The company has stated in the past that it might install a new vessel. This, though, is unlikely due to the tremendous expense.

The shutdown of Yankee Rowe has made anti-nuclear activists in the US quite hopeful in their struggle to shut down the plants and move the US toward conservation and safe alternative energy technology. After all, this was the plant that US President Bush only last year described as "the model for the future of nuclear power."

Sources:

  • The Guardian (US), 23 Oct. 1991, p.9
  • The Nuclear Monitor (US), 12 Aug. 1991, p.1
  • Nucleonics Week (US), 3 & 24 Oct. 1991.

Contacts: UCS, 26 Church Street, Cambridge MA 02238, US; tel: +1-617-547-5552.
NECNP, PO Box 545, Brattleboro VT 05301, US.