Nuclear cleanup fuels new debate
The decommissioning of Maine Yankee stirs emotion


July 28,1999

WISCASSET - High-ranking federal officials aired a disagreement over the cleanup standards for the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant at the high school Tuesday night.

The four-hour meeting started with representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) explaining their differing opinions over how much radiation should be left behind at Bailey Point after the Wiscasset plant is dismantled.

The meeting ended with residents chastising Maine Yankee and NRC for questionable dealings in the past, and appealing to EPA for help.

EPA favors a cleanup that would limit the radiation dose to the public to 15 millirem (mrem) per hour on the site and 4 mrem per hour in the groundwater. NRC requires 25 mrem per hour with additional measures taken when reasonable to reduce that dose rate.

Maine Yankee President Michael Meisner called the dispute "a tempest in a teapot," and suggested the feuding agencies are undermining public confidence.

Anti-nuclear activist Raymond Shadis disagreed, and insisted that if Massachusetts can require - and get - a 10 mrem cleanup at its Yankee Rowe reactor, so can Maine. He vowed Friends of the Coast will gather 150 signatures and petition the state to hold a hearing on the matter.

The demand is gaining momentum locally, as the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association and Friends of the Earth both publicly endorsed the plan Tuesday night.

Expert dispute Three EPA staffers explained that agency's position, noting that NRC has jurisdiction over nuclear power plants. That leaves EPA simply offering "guidance" to NRC, officials said. However, if EPA is not satisfied with the final condition of the Wiscasset site, the agency can demand further cleanup.

"We disagree on the level of protection," said EPA's Larry Reed of the two agencies. He added he was doubtful the difference of opinion would be resolved in time for Maine Yankee's decommissioning.

NRC's Carl Paperiello said the organizations do agree on several key points, but not all. He said it is difficult to evaluate what differences truly exist between the two standards since extrapolating dose rates using modelling can be tricky.

Maine Yankee's president had a creative way to resolve the disagreement.

"If it was up to me, I would bang their heads together, lock them in a room and make them reach an agreement," he joked.

Critics respond Shadis took exception to Meisner's "tempest in a teapot" comment, pointing out there is a 65-percent difference between the cleanup standards in question. He said if Maine Yankee truly believes the standards are equal, the company should agree, in writing, to adhere to EPA's more stringent recommendation.

Meisner said that would open the door to regulation from multiple agencies, a complication that the company wants to avoid.

Paul Blanch, an energy consultant from Westport, Conn. who works at the Millstone reactor, said he had received a letter from NRC confirming that the assumptions used for the 25 mrem standard would result in an actual dose of 87 mrem to anyone living on the site around-the-clock.

EPA officials said they will examine the way NRC converts concentrations of radiation into the dose received by humans.

Blanch, like others, also questioned how much radioactive material can be buried on the site so long as it does not exceed limits averaged over the entire property.

NRC's Paperiello answered there is no limit on the total number of curies (a measure of radiation) the company can leave behind, so long as the overall limits are met.

Lost trust Several members of the public challenged Maine Yankee and NRC for what they viewed as their failings in the past. Mike McConnell of Boothbay brought up thousands of backlogged maintenance items that were left undone for years at the facility and other safety problems that ultimately led to the plant's closure two years ago. He also noted NRC had allowed these things to go on, despite regular inspections.

"Our best hope at this point is the EPA," McConnell said, telling the EPA trio, "You may be the only credible organization we have dealt with." He urged EPA to conduct independent surveys and tests to verify information from NRC and Maine Yankee, concluding "We definitely need you here and want you here." Nigel Calder of Alna said since it is unknown how much radiation the environment can handle, "Why would we not want to hedge our bets?" by using the 10 mrem limit. Meisner argued the 10 mrem limit is not based on science, rather it is an arbitrary number.

Public money Since the decommissioning is being funded with ratepayer money, some residents asked why customers and the public cannot decide how much money is spent to clean the site up.

"What I'm hearing from a lot of peopleŠis that they would be willing to pay a little bit more and take a little bit longer to achieve an outcome they would be more comfortable with," said Donald Hudson, president of the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset.

NRC's Paperiello called it "a good question," but had no official response to the suggestion.

Kris Christine of Alna said she and her family would gladly pay more for their monthly electric bill if it meant the site would be cleaned more thoroughly.

"We don't want to be left holding the bag once that site is released," she said.

Alan Clemence, a member of Friends of the Coast, pointed out NRC should not be concerned about the cost of the cleanup, only about he safety of the site.

Paperiello called safety "a relative issue," but commented NRC's 25 mrem limit is carved in stone.

"It has to be met. It's non-negotiable," he said.