LePage administration still eyeing nuclear, despite Japan crisis

Posted March 16, 2011, at 8:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Gov. Paul LePage still regards nuclear power as a potential option for Maine’s future energy mix despite the unfolding crisis in Japan, according to his spokesman.

“What is happening in Japan is tragic,” Dan Demeritt, the governor’s communications director, said Wednesday. “But we are not changing our position that we need to consider all energy options going forward.”

Meanwhile, officials with the decommissioned Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, say the events taking place in Japan could not happen at the Wiscasset site due to differences between an operating plant and a non-working facility.

“It’s just not comparable,” said Maine Yankee spokesman Eric Howes.

Not long ago, nuclear was part of Maine’s energy mix, and LePage has said that he supports keeping nuclear power on the table as Maine seeks to reduce energy costs and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Demeritt said Wednesday the governor continues to support exploring “any option that would safely reduce the costs for Maine businesses and families” as the state seeks a broader energy mix.

That said, Demeritt said, to his knowledge, the administration is “not having those conversations at this point” with any potential developers.

The situation in Japan appears to be cooling the appetite for nuclear energy elsewhere in New England and across the country, however. In Vermont, the trouble-plagued Vermont Yankee nuclear plant likely faces even more opposition in the legislature to its request for a 20-year license extension after the nuclear disaster in Japan.

“I don’t think they had a pulse last week, but we’ve picked out the casket now,” Rep. Tony Klein, chairman of the Vermont House committee that oversees Vermont Yankee, said of the plant’s political prospects in the state.

When Maine Yankee was operating in Wiscasset, it generated nearly 120 billion kilowatts of electricity between 1972 and 1996. The plant was shut down and gradually dismantled beginning in 1997.

Today, all that is left of the Maine Yankee plant on Bailey Point is 64 “dry cask canisters” that hold the spent nuclear fuel rods and other radioactive materials. Those dry canisters are different from the spent fuel pools formerly used in Wiscasset and still used at the Japanese plants facing potential meltdowns, Howes said

The spent fuel in Wiscasset is encapsulated in thick, sealed stainless steel canisters which are then encased in a 2 ½-inch thick steel liner plus 28-inch thick concrete cylinders reinforced with steel.

Howes did not have specific numbers handy on Wednesday but said that, as part of Maine Yankee’s safety permit with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the facility was designed to withstand an earthquake bigger than the largest recorded ever for that region.  Maine Yankee’s fuel storage facility is also designed to withstand tornadoes and hurricanes of historic proportions for that area, he said.

In fact, the 300,000-pound concrete canisters are designed so that even if they toppled over they would stay sealed, he said.

Additionally, unlike at an operating nuclear plant, there are no high-pressure pipes or other mechanical systems that would propel radiation into the atmosphere if there was a leak.

As a result, the “emergency planning zone” or exclusion zone is restricted to the 300-meter site around the storage facility, whereas during Maine Yankee’s operating days the zone surrounded the plant for 10 miles.

Instead, the storage canisters use a passive system of air to cool the rods.

“It’s a passive system that doesn’t require any electricity or pumps,” Howes said. The facility is nonetheless monitored around the clock.

The federal government was supposed to remove the spent fuel from Wiscasset and other plants across the country. But that never happened amid the political battles over where to site a large storage facility. As a result, Maine Yankee and ratepayers pick up the estimated $6 million to $8 million annual tab to store and monitor the radioactive fuel.

Across the country, the nuclear industry is coming under new scrutiny with questions being raised about whether a big dose of bad news about the technology might cool the ardor for a renaissance in the industry.

“The timing could not be worse,” said Richard Levick, CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington-based firm that advises companies on how to handle public-relations crises. “We saw the American nuclear industry really starting to reposition itself for growth. At best this is a short-term setback.”

As the crisis in Japan worsened, U.S. nuclear industry officials were scrambling to reassure the public. New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., which owns Vermont Yankee and other plants, issued a statement saying “lessons will be learned and translated to even greater safety and effectiveness to meet the challenges of the most adverse and unexpected events, creating stronger public confidence in U.S. nuclear programs.”

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced last week that it would grant the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant a 20-year extension on its operating license. However, in Vermont, the state legislature must also sign off on granting an extension, and legislative leaders suggested they have no interest in bringing the issue up for a vote.

Vermont Yankee is a General Electric boiling-water reactor with a GE Mark 1 containment dating from the early 1970s — the same as the Fukushima reactors in Japan. Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith said the plant was designed to withstand a magnitude-6.2 earthquake, slightly larger than the strongest recorded earthquake to hit the region, a magnitude-6 temblor centered in East Haddam, Conn., in 1791.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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