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Wednesday, September 22, 1999

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Yankee's breakup proposal criticized


© Copyright 1999 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

WISCASSET — When Maine Yankee comes tumbling down, its radioactive concrete dome will be shipped to a nuclear waste site in another state, right? Not so fast.

Plant officials have another plan. They want to break up all the buildings — including the dome and the nuclear reactor's containment building — and bury them in individual graves, on site.

No other nuclear power plant has considered this before. "This is a first," said Neal Sheehan, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation's nuclear power plants.

Maine Yankee officials say the process is safe and will save money. Others, however, worry that it will kick up a lot of low-level radioactive dust, and leave behind a too-solid concentration of low-level radioactive materials just below ground.

"We won't allow it. We'll go to war and fight them," said Ray Shadis of Friends of the Coast, a group that works against nuclear pollution. "It needs to go into a landfill, tested and approved as a landfill, not on an exposed coastal site."

Gov. Angus King also opposes the idea.

"His initial reaction to the concept was very negative," said senior policy adviser Greg Nadeau, who follows nuclear issues. "He's concerned about the possible impact on groundwater, and the lobster industry. The governor has directed his staff, and the community of regulators, to take a very hard look at the proposal when it's put on the table. We are going to be extremely attentive."

The plan will be formally submitted to the NRC on Nov. 1 as part of Maine Yankee's draft license termination plan. But informal talks have already occurred, and federal opposition seems unlikely.

"If they do decide to go ahead with it, and the levels of residual radiation are below the NRC's limit," Sheehan said, "it would be allowable."

The NRC radiation limit is 25 millirems per year above normal background radiation, which averages 300 millirems. Another federal agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, favors 15 millirems, and could contest that. Shadis and his organization want to see the limit set at 10 millirems.

At the heart of the issue is the future of the block of attached buildings on the "hot" side of the plant, which covers about an acre. The buildings are now being stripped of their metal components, such as pipes and pumps, which will be sent to a metal reprocessor in Tennessee for reuse or disposal.

By 2002, the rooms will be bare, said plant spokesman Eric Howes. Then each will be surveyed for contamination. Any contamination found on the interior surfaces will be blasted off in a process called scabbling.

The concrete that is too radioactive to remain on the site will go to Utah for disposal. The remaining tons of concrete will be broken into chunks and dumped into 25-foot-deep foundations, which will likely be filled to within three feet of the surface before being backfilled.

The demolition of the plant would end in 2003, with the collapse of the containment dome, which is 135 feet wide, 150 feet high and 4 feet thick.

"Given the rate at which erosion takes place, one could easily imagine the bony outline of these buildings emerging in the next 10 to 20 years," Shadis said.

"At first," he said, "Maine Yankee gave the impression that the buildings would be removed, all traces excavated, and the holes filled with clean soil. This is a slapdash and makeshift plan."

According to Howes, the radiation dose for someone walking a dog over the acre of buried rubble, four hours a day, would be a fraction of 1 millirem — the same as it would be for people camping for four days directly over where the power plant sits today, and even for an industrial employee at a future gas-fired power plant on-site, say, working eight hours a day, 50 weeks a year

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