WASHINGTON — Exhibiting an accountability that many Vermonters have been seeking for years, New York lawmakers have asked the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for written assurance that an inspection of the Indian Point reactor will be as rigorous as the one performed at Maine Yankee in 1996.

Members of New York’s congressional delegation introduced legislation March 7 that would require an independent safety assessment (ISA) at Entergy’s Indian Point, near Manhattan, specifying that it should be like the one at Maine Yankee. That assessment revealed design flaws so severe that the reactor eventually was shut down.

But NRC officials are trying to convince the lawmakers that a new inspection procedure, piloted two years ago at Vermont Yankee, will be sufficient.

In March 9 testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, NRC Chairman Nils Diaz told Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, that a 2004 engineering inspection at Vermont Yankee was “working very well.”

“We are going to conduct that type of assessment early next year at Indian Point … ” Diaz said. “We call it an independent safety assessment because we’re an independent agency, and it will be conducted completely, thoroughly and independent of any undue influences.”

“I don’t know that it is exactly the same,” Diaz conceded.

The VY inspection examined 45 components in various systems and found eight problems the NRC determined to be of low safety significance. All of those problems have been repaired, according to plant officials. The Maine Yankee inspection included a so-called “deep vertical slice” review of two safety and two non-safety related systems.

NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan told the committee that the NRC has performed no such inspection since 1996.

“We’ve come a long way since 1996,” McGaffigan said. “We think we have a much better core inspection process today than we had in 1996 … it is a very, very thorough review. I think the spirit of [the legislation] is being followed … but if people are longing for a Maine Yankee-style ISA, we do better today in our baseline program today than we did then with that ISA.”

Clinton asked the commissioners to detail their comments in a letter “because certainly the idea of an independent safety assessment has a lot of credibility and support. … I just want to be assured that it is as thorough and comprehensive and independent as we can possibly make it.”

Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-NY, introduced HR 4891, which is co-sponsored by three other New York representatives and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-CT. The measure would require within six months of its passage, a “focused, in-depth” inspection of the “design, construction, maintenance and operational safety performance” of the systems at Indian Point, including the reactor protection system, the control room ventilation system and the containment ventilation system, the electrical system, the condensate system and the spent fuel storage system.

The bill also calls for a comprehensive evaluation of the radiological emergency response plan conducted by the NRC and the Department of Homeland Security, including a detailed explanation of why the NRC and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved a plan that has been rejected by the vast majority of local leaders, according to a press release on Hinchey’s website.

For years, Vermonters have been asking for both an ISA and better evacuation planning at Vermont Yankee. In 2003, the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition began calling for an ISA after Entergy made clear it was planning to request a 20 percent power increase at the reactor. Virtually every public meeting of the NRC near Vermont Yankee has been studded with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of signs calling for an ISA.

“Is this simply a case of my senator’s bigger than your senator?” asked Scott Ainslie of Brattleboro, an NEC board member.

“Four nuclear plants have been shut down before their original licenses have expired by extraordinary inspections that made plain to everyone that they were too dangerous to run and too expensive to fix,” Ainslee said. “The fact is that Entergy, the Douglas administration and its Public Service Board don’t want to face the facts of an independent safety assessment. They are gambling with our lives, our property, and our future.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, “is open to supporting requests for additional inspection at Vermont Yankee as consideration of the plant’s relicensing proceed,” said spokesman David Carle. “At this point, it is unclear what the information needs are because the relicensing process has just began.”

NRC officials have made it clear that emergency planning, nuclear waste storage and any existing problems at the Vernon reactor would be outside the scope of the VY license renewal application.

Carle said Leahy “looks forward to a thorough examination of the information the NRC license review process is already designed to collect, and also to an open discussion with Vermonters and with state officials, the Legislature, the congressional delegation and Entergy about the adequacy of the data that is being collected.”

A spokesman for Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-VT, said the senator does not see the need for legislation on the ISA issue.

“The NRC currently has legal authority under the Atomic Energy Act to do safety inspections and conducted the 1996 inspection at Maine Yankee without legislation compelling it to do so,” said spokeswoman Diane Derby in an e-mail. Derby was asked to clarify how that statement applies to Vermont Yankee, but did not do so.

Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, did not respond to the Guardian’s questions.

NRC officials went to Montpelier Tuesday to meet with state officials, including Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch, who is running for Congress, to discuss Entergy’s bid to extend the VY license for 20 years when the current license expires in 2012, according to an aide in Welch’s office.

The Vermont Senate on Wednesday passed legislation requiring Entergy to get legislative approval for a license renewal.

Meanwhile, a VY official told Massachusetts residents last week that an ISA had been done at Vermont Yankee.

“There was an independent safety assessment performed at Vermont Yankee at the request of the Public Service Board,” Entergy lobbyist Brian Cosgrove told Massachusetts residents at a March 13 public meeting in Northfield.

Earlier this month, the Vermont Public Service Board said the NRC’s inspection of Vermont Yankee did not comply to the letter of the board’s order, but was sufficient to satisfy their inspection requirements.

However, John Dreyfuss, Vermont Yankee’s director of engineer, told the Massachusetts residents that what occurred at Vernon reactor was an independent engineering assessment, and that New York was unlikely to get an ISA at Indian Point.

“What New York is likely to get will be the Vermont Yankee-style independent engineering assessment that was done in conjunction with the power uprate at VY,” Dreyfuss said.

This article originally appeared in the Vermont Guardian