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Saxton residents skeptical about reactor's transport

Sunday, October 04, 1998

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

SAXTON, Pa. -- It should be a sight to see when the big, steel heart of the idle Saxton nuclear plant is shipped early next month through town to a South Carolina atomic graveyard.

That heart, a nuclear reactor, is 17 feet long and 6 feet wide, but packed with concrete and sealed in a steel canister, the package will weigh 120 tons -- about the same as 63 Lincoln Continental Mark IVs. It will be loaded on a tractor-trailer with 19 axles and 128 wheels -- 140 feet of rig, a little longer than three standard-size tractor-trailers end to end.

And at its 5 mph cruising speed, factored with daylight-only travel and stops to let traffic pass, the load should take the better part of two days to finish the 27-mile trip to a Huntingdon-area rail siding.

But don't expect to see this whole Bedford County borough of 852 people toting lawn chairs down to Main Street to watch the mammoth pass.

"There are people who want to know the date of the shipment," said Jim Tydeman, one of 12 members on a community task force funneling information between the plant owners and the public. "They're worried. They want to be out of town."

This tiny nuclear power plant, three miles south of sprawling Raystown Lake, was a 10-year experiment in small-scale power generation, shut down and stripped of its fuel 26 years ago.

But with news that plant owner GPU Nuclear will pack off the reactor vessel and two smaller components Nov. 3, a long-simmering mistrust by some Saxton-area residents is roiling again.

"I'm pretty uneasy," said Alan Guthridge, whose mobile home is about 200 yards up the road from the plant. "I've never believed GPU tells us everything. They just tell us what they think we should know."

"I live here, and I have three kids," Jamie Allison said as she tended the cash register at a local gas-and-go. "It's kind of scary."

About the closest thing this isolated stretch of quiet has to a public opinion pollster is local barber "Punch" Foster. And customers at his midtown barbershop have made the nuclear plant topic No. 1, ahead of the local high school football team and well in front of the Oval Office follies.

"People are divided about the plant. Some are comfortable; some aren't," Foster said as he shaved a Nike symbol into the back of one young customer's hair. "It's a real mixed bag."

Stand by the side of the road as the rig bearing the reactor vessel crawls by "and the dose of radiation you'll get will be so low it will be almost unmeasurable," said Rodger Granlund, an independent inspector hired through Penn State University.

"It would be about equal to a couple hours of natural background radiation," he said. "The greatest risk of someone getting hurt by this shipment would be if they got in a traffic accident with it."

Relations soured

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan calls it a "low-risk" procedure with radiation that "absolutely will be within safe levels."

"This shipment's rather benign," said Perry Carmel, site supervisor at the nuclear plant. "But people still imagine something out of science fiction."

Saxton is not a town likely to erupt in protest, though. It's a 144-year-old town built largely on coal mining, a place where American flags fly from utility poles along Main Street and the United Way sign in the middle of town shows that the borough is midway toward raising its $1,900 goal.

Seton Co., on one edge of town, has 1,300 workers making leather for car seat covers. The 132-year-old E. Eichelberger General Merchandise store sells anything from hammers to penny candy. Folks trickle in from surrounding counties to get dentist Joseph Tate's bargain rates for dentures.

And the Saxton nuclear plant, just past the northeast corner of town, is an unobtrusive part of all this. There are no landmark cooling towers, just a cold, capsule-shaped dome painted drab olive and poking 50 feet into the air.

It's so unobtrusive that GPU spokesperson Sylvia Morris gives directions back to the plant by naming the most visible landmark: the Reliable Cleaners truck that seems to have been parked at the roadside forever.

Even in its heyday, the plant wasn't much.

The pioneer Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Beaver County, which powered up in 1957 and was dismantled between 1984 and 1989, produced 60 megawatts of electricity and was considered small, but not in comparison to the Saxton plant, which had a capacity for 7 megawatts -- enough to light about 100 homes. That's how its owners wanted it.

Sister companies Pennsylvania Electric Co., Metropolitan Edison Co. and Jersey Central Power & Light -- now merged as GPU Energy -- built it so would-be operators could test-drive a nuclear plant.

A bond grew here between GPU and some Saxton residents.

"I trust them," said Kevin Wise, a clerk at E. Eichelberger's. "Those guys working out there -- some of them live here and, if something were wrong, they'd move out."

For others, though, relations with GPU soured sometime after the 1972 shutdown.

Six years later -- after the local weekly, The Broad Top Bulletin, inquired -- the NRC confirmed that radiation was unexpectedly released from the plant four times in 1970 and 1971, something GPU had never told Saxton residents.

GPU now says that, for a person standing at the plant boundary, the largest of those releases would have equaled about eight days' worth of naturally occurring radiation.

James Elder, a leader of a 15-year-old local group critical of plant operations, says the release could have been greater because measurement gauges had hit their maximum.

'They're truthful'

When GPU shipped out the reactor's most radioactive component, its fuel rods, after the 1972 shutdown, it met federal requirements but never warned Saxton that the shipment was coming through town.

Suspicion grew when, in the wake of his 13-year-old son's leukemia death in 1976, Elder surveyed a five-mile radius around Saxton and found 19 leukemia cases in a population of about 4,000 people. He said it was as much as six times the rate that medical texts suggested he should have found.

The state Health Department though, dismissed the findings, saying his methodology was suspect and his sample too small.

Still, when GPU announced in the mid-1980s that it would dismantle the plant, critics insisted that it be mothballed until 2022 to allow radioactive decay to lessen the threat.

Indeed, resident Ernest Fuller derailed GPU for about a decade by persuading the state Public Utility Commission not to let the utility pass costs on to rate payers.

Time and some skillful public relations have healed some of GPU's credibility wounds, though.

For instance, GPU offered to pay independent inspector Granlund to oversee the job -- but to make him answer only to the Bedford County commissioners and local residents. "He's a pretty credible guy," Elder said.

Home health nurse Chris Pagan, one of the plant's close neighbors, has no statistics, but she believes that the plant has driven up local cancer rates. She blames her 4-year-old Rottweiler's lung cancer death last spring on the plant. And she says she worries about the plant now that she's pregnant with her third child.

"But they're at least trying to be open," she said. "One day, the lady from the plant saw my husband working outside and invited him to come over anytime and look around."

"This is a whole different crew than the plant used to have," said James Fockler, chairman of the committee funneling plant information to the public. "They're truthful."

After standing idle for 2 1/2 decades, the plant's fenced-in acre is jammed with six work trailers, a staging building and 50 workers. They will use a 200-ton crane to fish the reactor and other parts from the containment building. The reactor, already filled with concrete grout, will be painted with an epoxy to stabilize contaminants then sealed in a steel shipping canister filled with concrete. Finally, the tractor trailer will ease the packaged reactor vessel out of town and up Route 26 to a rail siding near the CSX Corp. Pennsylvania main line near Huntingdon.

Eleven days later, a special train will carry the load and a coach car for inspectors and engineers through Harrisburg then south to South Carolina.

The containment dome and other parts of the plant must still be cut away and shipped out before GPU returns this to fallow ground, probably by 2001.

"The ground will be safe ... but I imagine that, 50 years from now, there will still be people who won't set foot on it," said Carmel, the site supervisor.

But Morris said GPU had inquiries about the property from a lumber company and a company hoping to set up a coal-powered generator.

"We inquired about it as a site for business," said Stephen Stoudnour, a board member at the local Broad Top Area Chamber of Commerce. "It would seem to us to be OK."

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