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Maine Yankee Cites Transformer As Probable Fire Cause With AM-Rocky Flats, Bjt

May 1, 1991

WISCASSET, Maine (AP) _ A hydrogen fire in the non-nuclear part of the Maine Yankee power plant likely was caused by a transformer failure and could keep the plant closed for months, a company official said Wednesday.

As workers cleaned up spilled oil and debris, federal and state lawmakers criticized plant officials for their handling of Monday night’s incident.

U.S. Rep. Thomas Andrews, D-Maine, said he is looking into whether federal regulations should be strengthened to compel nuclear plant operators to quickly make public details of any accidents.

″An explosion and extensive damage at a nuclear power plant is cause for tremendous concern and we need to get the straight facts out to the public as soon as humanly possible,″ Andrews said.

On Monday night, Maine Yankee officials confirmed a fire had broken out, but gave no indication of its severity and said they could provide no details until Tuesday. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission released the first description of the fire and details of the damage late Tuesday morning.

The company disputed the criticism, saying it had described ″in general terms″ what had happened Monday night.

Maine Yankee officials led reporters Wednesday on a tour of the damaged area of the 19-year-old plant in Wiscasset, a town of 6,000 people about 40 miles north of Portland, and revealed new details about what happened Monday night.

The transformer failure, accompanied by a loud ″boom,″ caused electrical lines leading into the generator to vibrate, snapping two hydrogen lines and causing a spark that ignited the fire, said Thomas Boulette, vice president for operations.

No one was injured in the fire - about 165 feet from the nuclear reactor’s 4 1/2 -foot thick containment wall - and no radiation was released.

Plant officials should know by the week’s end how long the plant will be shut down, Boulette said.

The plant could be down as little as four to six weeks if the $7 million transformer must be replaced, or the plant could remain shut through October if its $17.5 million generator must be replaced, Boulette said.

An initial inspection of the damage indicates the transformer, rebuilt after it failed in 1988, must be replaced, Boulette said.

He said the fire could have been much worse.

″Some of the experts have told us, ’You guys are really lucky,‴ he said.

Outside the plant, several small cracks were visible on the exterior of the power plant’s 450-ton main transformer, which shot oil about 100 feet into the air when rocked by the blast that touched off the fire.

The transformer, which holds 20,030 gallons of oil, buckled and spilled 1,700 gallons of mineral oil outside the building. The oil is used as a coolant in the transformer.

Contractors placed booms in the Back River behind the plant Tuesday afternoon to contain the oil and worked Wednesday to complete the cleanup. Boulette said he expects that job to be finished Thursday.

In Augusta, the state capital, Maine Yankee President Charles Frizzle briefed about 15 legislators on the fire and follow-up investigation.

State Rep. Marge Kilkelly said she’s concerned that state and county emergency management officials weren’t told when they were notified about the fire that it was classified an ″unusual event,″ the lowest of four NRC emergency classifications. The Wiscasset Democrat said she’s investigating whether the plant violated its emergency response plan.

Frizzle said the fire was the worst incident in the nuclear plant’s 19 years.

The incident touched off renewed criticism of Maine Yankee by anti-nuclear activists.

They said they would fight to have a fourth statewide referendum on closing the plant put to Maine voters. Earlier attempts to close the plant by a statewide vote failed in 1980, 1982 and 1987.

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