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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

Political notes from Free Press staff writers Terri Hallenbeck, Sam Hemingway and Nancy Remsen




Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko spoke today at a conferene and included these remarks about the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee at the end of a more general speech:

Before I close my remarks, I would like to make one last point. For all the attention thatnew reactor issues receive, the NRC must always stay focused on ensuring that the existing fleet continues to operate in a safe, secure, and environmentally sensitive manner. That is our core mission, and I assure you that the agency has not lost sight of that. I’ll share one example of our
steady focus. It concerns an issue that has drawn a good bit of attention lately—leaking pipes and tritium. There is some concern as to whether tritium from the Vermont Yankee plant has leaked into the Connecticut River. Elected officials in that region have expressed considerable and very understandable concern, and not just about Vermont Yankee.

The headlines have not been pretty. As a scientist, I know the relative risk of tritium. In the grand scheme of radiation, it is well down the scale, but in the area of public perception, it takes on greater significance. People are asking legitimate questions— what’s leaking, where’s it leaking, how much is leaking, and—most importantly—what’s being done to deal with the problem? The NRC always inspects licensees who have such leaks and in each case makes certain that licensees are taking the appropriate steps to find the source, and to protect the public
and the environment. Inspections are ongoing at Vermont Yankee—once the source is identified, it will be fixed promptly and correctly. The situation was in many respects the same at the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey last year. That episode told us a great deal about how buried pipe behaves over the years and the importance of ensuring that the right piping is installed in the first place. That situation is being dealt with as well.

We always have to ask ourselves at every turn whether we can we do more. That’s why
the agency is participating in a buried piping task force to evaluate the need for specific corrosion protection standards that could be implemented at nuclear power plant facilities. That’s why, last fall, I asked the agency staff to take a look at our general approach for inspecting and dealing with aging pipes. While we feel that the program we now have in place is sound, I personally think that more can be done.

Following reports of leaks at a few plants, the NRC created a special task force in 2006 to conduct a lessons-learned review of these incidents. The task force made more than two dozen recommendations—a great many of those have been incorporated in the guidance we provide to plants. While there are NRC requirements for documenting releases into the groundwater and relied on licensees to adhere to certain measures as best practice. Guidance is one thing. A regulatory requirement is another. Therefore, I intend to ask the staff to relook at the 2006 lessons learned recommendations and determine whether any changes in this area might be
advisable. I look at it this way: From time to time building codes are amended as civil engineers see areas that can be improved. This may be the time to take that step in the nuclear field.

And, because we want the public to fully understand all aspects of the tritium issue, the staff is exploring, at my request, conducting forums to discuss the tritium issue and to hear from the public on their thoughts. More specific information will be made available as soon as possible.

Be assured that on this issue and all others, the NRC will continue striving to be a strong, effective regulator. As Chairman, I will do my best to ensure that the NRC acts firmly and decisively and conducts itself openly and transparently in fulfilling our core mission and preparing for new issues and challenges. Again, thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.
- Terri Hallenbeck


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