The venting of radioactive gas from an Arkansas nuclear power plant last week in defiance of a state official's request for delay has brought cries of outrage and questions about state authority in governing activities at nuclear sites.
The Arkansas Power and Light Co.'s rejection of a plea from Dr. Robert Young, state health director, has raised the level of suspicion between state government and utilities in Arkansas and further focused attention on regulatory problems in the nation's nuclear power industry.
Arkansas Power and Light finished releasing the gas -- primarily xenon 133, with some krypton 85 and other radioactive gases -- from its Russellville plant last Thursday. An estimated 1.6 million cubic feet of gas had accumulated in the reactor building after an accident May 10, when a pump seal burst allowing 95,000 gallons of radioactive water to spill onto the building floor.
The power company wanted to vent the gas before sending workers in to repair the broken seal, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave permission for the venting after verifying the company's findings that the gas would pose no threat to public health.
But Young, the state health director, wasn't so sure. In a hurried review of the utility's data -- which he said was provided by the utility just two hours before the venting was scheduled to begin -- he became concerned about discrepancies, in the samples taken from the reactor building, some showing higher levels of radioactivity than others.
With the backing of Gov. Bill Clinton, Young orally ordered the utility to delay venting the gas for 48 hours so an independent analysis could be conducted.
Utility officials, while acknowledging there was "no urgency" in releasing the gas, ignored the order, saying they were answerable only to the NRC. Clinton called the White House, hoping that the administration could persuade the NRC to intervene, but to no avail.
Everyone agrees that the company had legal authority to proceed. Although federal law permits states to pass limited environmental and health standards governing radioactive emissions, Arkansas has never done so, yielding full authority to the NRC.
The situation made Clinton, who is proud of his environmental and consumer record, "heartsick," and he called for a change in regulations that would require prior consultation with a state before venting would be permitted.
NRC officials say they have never heard of a confrontation quite like this one, and a spokesman called it a "matter between the state and the utility." But the issue of state concerns in regulating nuclear power plants is now new.
In Pennsylvania, state, utility and NRC officials are wrestling with the problem of venting radioactive krypton gas from the crippled Three Mile Island nuclear plant. Pennsylvania officials say that the NRC technically could proceed with venting at TMI without seeking state approval.
But, given the seriousness of the accident at TMI, "The NRC is not going to ignore what the state has to say," said an aide to Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh.
At the National Governors Association, demands are growing for a state role in regulating nuclear power. After the TMI accident in March 1979, the organization called on the NRC to ensure the "full participation" of state officials in establishing radiation monitoring systems outside nuclear plants.
The association asked that states be allowed to place inspectors in nuclear plants. The NRC now allows such inspectors, but gives them no authority to direct operations. Clinton, who once rejected the idea of placing state inspectors in the plants, is reconsidering.
Meanwhile, state officials in Arkansas are bitter.
"It appears that the citizens have no recourse in a situation of this nature," Young said. "We did everything we could, and still we were not able to have some responsibility and authority to protect its citizens from the dangers of nuclear energy."