ELLEN FOBERG is as unbothered by the aging Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant as her quarter horse 'Babe' who grazes peacefully near her country farm house about two miles from the plant."It doesn't bother me. It doesn't worry me," says the former Rowe selectwoman, who sits barefoot on her front porch. Yankee Rowe, the oldest nuclear power plant in the United States, shut down last week because of safety concerns raised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). (In a separate incident, the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant shut down Saturday due to malfunction in a pump that carries steam. The plant will remain closed while repairs are made.) Residents in this rural western Massachusetts town with a population of about 320 have mixed reactions about the shutdown decision. Ms. Foberg, for example, expects Yankee Atomic Electric Company's voluntary shutdown decision to be only temporary.
Plant brings jobs "I don't think it's anything permanent," she says. "We've experienced shutdowns every 18 months, and it doesn't mean [a loss of jobs.] It means doubling, sometimes tripling, the work force." She says the periodic shutdowns - involving extra maintenance work, testing, and refueling - generally require more employees and more work. "A shutdown doesn't mean devastation here," she says. Many Rowe residents, like Foberg, appreciate the plant because it brings jobs and broadens the town's tax base; Yankee Rowe provides about a third of the town's property taxes. The tax money has primarily helped Rowe maintain a quality school system, says Jim O'Brien, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, but it has also been used for local road and bridge repairs and for snow removal in neighboring towns. Despite the plant's benefits to the community, some are questioning whether the 31-year-old plant should continue to operate after the shutdown. Last June, a nuclear watchdog group - the Union of Concerned Scientists - petitioned the NRC and urged it to close the plant over safety questions regarding its reactor pressure vessel. The group is concerned the vessel may be too brittle and could crack, thereby leading to a meltdown. But in July the NRC voted to allow Yankee to continue operating and wait till April to do extensive testing. The NRC's recommendation last week for a plant shutdown thus came as a surprise. Plant officials, who have recently been meeting with the NRC, nevertheless still hope to restart the plant within a month and wait until April for a 20-week period of extensive maintenance, refueling, and testing. John Haseltine, Yankee project director for reactor vessel safety, says the plant can safely operate until April. In addition, he says more time is needed to assemble and install extensive testing equipment. Yankee Rowe was built in 1960 and has been championed as one of the country's more efficient plants. But it was built before some of the documentation and testing requirements of newer plants. Its 40-year license to operate will expire in the year 2000, and Yankee Rowe officials are considering applying for a license renewal. But some critics question whether older plants, like Yankee, should be relicensed. "I think that Yankee Rowe points up the very serious kinds of problems that can be caused by the deterioration of nuclear-power safety components," says Diane Curran, counsel for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Yankee Rowe spokesman Bill McGee admits the controversy over the reactor vessel has stirred up the community. "Quite frankly I think some of the support that we've had out in the western part of the state has eroded," he says. He and other Yankee supporters blame it on so-called antinuclear "outsiders."
Changing community Mr. O'Brien says the community has changed over the years. "It's a younger society right now, and they're very vocal about the environment." But he says the heightened discussion may be a positive thing: Criticism is "like a padlock; it keeps honest people honest."