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Panel Scuttles Plan For Savannah River Reopening With PM-Weapons Reactor

December 14, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An Energy Department advisory panel is refusing to approve the department’s plans for restarting one of its reactors at Savannah River, S.C., next summer.

The panel of 12 engineers and scientists appointed by Energy Secretary John S. Herrington said at a public meeting Tuesday that more complete inspections and analyses of newly discovered cracks at another reactor at the site are needed to determine whether the reactor can withstand an earthquake.

″This will be read, and read correctly, as our declining to endorse the restart strategy,″ said one panel member Harold Lewis, a physics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The panel’s chairman, John Ahearne, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the panel ″found a lot of weaknesses with the plan. There was a lack of a clear approach. The goals have to be more clearly identified.″

The plant is the nation’s only source for tritium, which is used to make nuclear weapons and which has to be replenished because it decomposes. Herrington has assured Congress that the reactors will not be restarted unless they are determined to be safe.

The department had hoped to restart by next summer the Savannah River K reactor, which has been shut down for six months - as have two others there - because of safety concerns.

Among concerns raised by the advisory panel are cracks in the Savannah River L reactor’s main cooling system and whether the K reactor can be operated safely at full power.

A department spokesman, C. Anson Franklin, declined to say how the department will address the concerns of the panel, which, while having no legal authority to delay the restart, is seen as having sufficient influence that the department would not proceed without its approval.

The department last week announced steps it would take before restarting the K reactor. The panel said that strategy did not include adequate inspection for cracks.

Ahearne said that ″there’s a lot more that needs to be developed″ before the committee could endorse a restart plan.

Richard Starostecki, a deputy assistant secretary for safety, health and quality assurance, said it was possible the department could address the panel’s concerns in time for a spring or summer restart.

Yet, said Ahearne, ″Some of us have a lot of doubt whether that schedule can be met.″

The committee is to discuss the restart program again at a meeting in late January.