VERNON, Vt. (AP) – The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant remained at less than half its normal power output Tuesday as state and federal regulators zeroed in on missing brackets on support beams as the cause of a new round of problems with the plant’s cooling towers.

A top official with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, director of operations William Borchardt, traveled from Washington to meet Tuesday with plant and state officials and participate in a conference call with Vermont’s three congressional offices.

Borchardt told reporters after that meeting that a cooling tower leak discovered last Friday resulted from an inadequate fix to a much bigger leak that struck one of the towers’ 22 sections, or cells, last August.

He said a special inspection team was looking into the latest mishap and likely would remain at Vermont Yankee through the week. Borchardt emphasized that he did not believe there was any threat to public safety from the cooling tower problems.

While Vermont Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien lamented what he called another blow to public confidence in the 36-year-old reactor, Borchardt said his agency’s purview was limited to ensuring nuclear plants operate safely.

“We don’t ignore that this is a significant public concern here and that is one of the reasons that we formed the special inspection team,” Borchardt said.

The cooling towers are two rows of 11 “cells,” each about 40 feet tall. They receive Connecticut River water that cools the steam used to generate electricity before it is returned to the river.

Vermont Yankee operates under strict limits on the temperatures of water it can return to the river – the limits are designed to protect fish and other aquatic life.

It uses the cooling towers in summer to help it meet the river temperature limits. With the cooling towers out of operation since Friday – plant spokesman Robert Williams said one row of 11 was ready to return to service as of Tuesday – the plant had to reduce its flows, which in turn forced it to reduce power.

Problems with the cooling towers came to the fore last August, when wooden supports gave way and a pipe broke, leading to a collapse of the cell and sensational photographs of the broken pipe spewing thousands of gallons of water onto the ground.

O’Brien and Williams said another weakening of supports and a leak in a pipe appeared to have been caused by the fix installed since last year. Two support brackets were attached to the beams where three should have been, they said.

O’Brien said he was “not at all satisfied – quite candidly I’m very disappointed” in what he described as a four-hour delay on Friday between when the new leak was discovered at Vermont Yankee and when his office was notified.

Williams disputed this, saying Uldis Vanags, the nuclear adviser at the Department of Public Service, was notified sooner. He later said the initial contact to the department was at 12:30 p.m., about 45 minutes before O’Brien got the word.

Vermont Yankee’s power reduction is likely to increase power costs for Vermont’s utilities, which will need to buy replacement power. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Tuesday requested assurances that the extra costs would be assumed by Entergy shareholders and not passed on to Vermont consumers.

Sanders, who met Tuesday with NRC chairman Dale Klein to voice his concerns about the nuclear power industry, said of the increased power costs, “Entergy screwed up and Entergy’s got to eat it through their profits and their dividends.”

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