Townsfolk defend atomic plant against a ballot initiative

``Save Our Nuclear Power,'' proclaims a banner on a house here. This tiny town in the rolling Berkshire mountains is wholeheartedly committed to nuclear power. But the Yankee Atomic nuclear plant, which opened here in 1960, could be shut down by a voters' initiative in November. The initiative, Question 4, would prohibit production of nuclear waste in the state.

Rowe's Yankee Atomic plant is the oldest operating nuclear power plant in the United States. The citizens of Rowe are indignant about the possible plant closing. Dorothy Lehr, one of the owners of the Rowe Country Store, says ``we've seen nothing but good come from that plant.''

Whether or not the voters' initiative succeeds, the Yankee Atomic plant remains one of the nuclear industry's success stories.

At many plants, sloppy construction and recurring management problems proliferate. Costs have often run billions over projection.

In contrast, Yankee Atomic was finished ahead of schedule, $14 million under the original projected cost. Each year since 1960 it has produced 1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity at competitive rates (currently under 5 cents per kilowatt hour). No accidents blemish its record.

Karl Jurentkuff, head of operations at Yankee Atomic, attributes the plant's success to a very conservative original design, plant operators' active on-site involvement with the construction, and excellent management-union relations.

The original design was the first element of Yankee Atomic's success. Mr. Jurentkuff describes the plant as ``overbuilt.'' ``In each case where a particular cable thickness was needed, the engineers went one size larger. Where a certain pump or pipe capacity was needed, the next bigger size was used,'' he says. The conservative, and initially more expensive, design has produced a degree of reliability found in few other plants.

Yankee Atomic's success was also promoted by the operators' active on-site involvement during construction. Plant operators worked beside the contractors during each phase of construction. Each weld was X-rayed for soundness. The operators work with a confidence that they say proceeds from actual participation during construction.

Today, a nuclear power plant takes eight to nine years to build, according to Bill McGee of the Yankee Atomic Electric Company. Yankee Atomic took only 25 months to construct. A less complex regulatory process allowed the construction to take less time. Essentially the same crew worked on the plant from beginning to end. Over the shorter period, it was easier for the utility to coordinate efforts with the contractors.

Older nuclear plants are not without their critics. Kenneth Rogers, a commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), not speaking of Yankee Atomic specifically, says that ``degredation possibly associated with aging could decrease the safety margins, and may be a loaded gun, an accident waiting to happen.''

Objections to Yankee Atomic, which is licensed to operate until 2000, focus on potential future problems involving the plant's age or design, rather than on specific problems with its operating record.

Joseph Kriesberg, of Massachusetts Citizens for Safe Energy (the group sponsoring the voters' initiative), cites the decreasing reliability of older plants as his primary objection to the Rowe plant.

Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information Resource Service in Washington, notes that the Yankee Atomic plant is the only one in the country where the entire structure is above ground. He says ``if an accident occurred, radiation could get into the airstream more easily at Rowe than at plants with newer designs. Yankee Atomic would not meet NRC regulations for new nuclear plants, and would not even be considered if proposed to the NRC today. An excessive number of exemptions allow it to continue to operate.''

But NRC regional affairs coordinator Karl Abraham says he is ``confident that there is no other site in Region I where we have had so few allegations of wrongdoing over the years.''

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