updated 4/22/2004 1:44:36 PM ET 2004-04-22T17:44:36

Crews were searching Thursday for two pieces from a highly radioactive fuel rod after officials discovered a day earlier that they were missing from a nuclear reactor in Vermont.

The fuel rod was removed in 1979 from the Vermont Yankee reactor, which is shut down for refueling and maintenance. Vermont Yankee is in the southeastern town of Vernon, on the border with Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The used fuel rods are stored in a pool that is 40 feet deep and contains 2,789 fuel assemblies.
The pencil-thin rods are 12 feet long and filled with uranium pellets. Sheehan said the missing pieces might have been cut from longer rods for testing or could have broken when they were removed from the fuel assemblies.

The search for the missing pieces was going to include the use of a remote-controlled camera in the pool, as well as review of documents dating back decades that cover shipments and movements of radioactive material.

Shipped out?
“We do not think there is a threat to the public at this point. The great probability is this material is still somewhere in the pool,” said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Sheehan said it was possible the spent fuel was mixed in with a shipment of low-level nuclear waste and ended up at a repository in South Carolina or a facility in Washington state. He said it was also possible that it was taken to a nuclear testing facility run by General Electric, which designed the plant.

The material would kill anyone who came in contact with it without being properly shielded, Sheehan said. Terrorists could also use spent nuclear fuel to build so-called dirty bombs that could spread deadly radiation with conventional explosives.

The NRC is helping plant officials in the search for the rod, which was part of the fuel assembly used to power the reactor. One of the missing pieces is about the size of a pencil. The other piece is about the thickness of a pencil and 17 inches long.

“It would be very difficult to remove this material from the site without somebody knowing about it,” Sheehan said. “It would set off radiation monitors.”

Sheehan cited the heightened awareness of the need to control nuclear material that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. “We don’t want this falling into the wrong hands,” he said. “This is something we would never take lightly.”

‘Intolerable,’ says governor
Gov. James Douglas, after speaking Wednesday with the head of the NRC, said he was “very concerned” about the missing fuel at the plant, which is run by Entergy Nuclear.

“This situation is intolerable,” he said in a statement.

In 2002, a Connecticut nuclear plant was fined $288,000 after a similar loss. That fuel was never accounted for.

The state’s Public Safety Department and Homeland Security Unit also were notified of the missing fuel.

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