An End to Nuclear Power in Vermont?
A recent demonstration against Vermont Yankee drew about 400 people. Organizers say the nuclear crisis in Japan has energized the movement to shut down aging reactors in the U.S. (Photo: Jeff Young)
Japan’s nuclear crisis has renewed concerns about the aging fleet of reactors here in the U.S. A showdown is brewing in Vermont, where a 39-year old nuclear plant received federal approval to run for 20 more years, but state lawmakers voted to shut it down. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports Vermont could become a model for other states that want a voice on the fate of aging nuclear reactors.
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Imagine driving around in a car made in 1980. Well, the average nuclear power plant in the United States is 31 years old. At age 40, a nuclear plant must be re-licensed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
And so far, the NRC has never refused a re-licensing application. And just recently it approved a 20-year extension for Vermont Yankee. In most states that would be a done deal, but in Vermont the legislature and governor think they have the power to shut the aging reactor down. And other states with old nuclear plants are watching. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from the Green Mountain State.
[STRING BAND MUSIC, CROWD APPLAUDS]
YOUNG: There was a lot of gray hair on the heads bobbing to the music at the latest meeting of anti-nuclear activists in Brattleboro, Vermont. The activists have aged along with their target - Entergy Corporation’s Vermont Yankee nuclear station, just seven miles away, turns 39 this year. Many in this crowd have been working decades to shut it down. On this snowy March night they started a countdown: one year until the power company’s license to operate expires.
WILLIAMS: Close this aging reactor!
YOUNG: The anti nuclear movement here is newly energized by two events—one in the State Senate, which voted overwhelmingly to deny Vermont Yankee the permission it needs under state law to continue operation.
The unfolding crisis at the Fukushima power plant is also on people’s minds. Bob Bady, of the group Safe and Green, says no one expects a tsunami here on the banks of the Connecticut River. But they do worry that a flood, terror attack or simple human error might expose weaknesses that the Japanese and Vermont reactors share.
BADY: Now that this has happened to Japan, and it’s the exact same Mark 1 reactor, it’s the exact same spent fuel pool sitting 7 stories above ground. The parallels are just so striking and they’re unavoidable.
YOUNG: The person who’s done the most to make Vermont Yankee’s problems public was once an executive in a nuclear energy company. Arnie Gundersen was fired in the 1990s for raising safety concerns. He’s been a nuclear watchdog since, and Vermont’s government hired him to take a close look at Vermont Yankee.
Gundersen says the spent fuel pool is of particular concern. As in the Japanese reactors, Vermont Yankee’s 40 ft long, 40 ft deep pool holds the fuel assemblies that come out of the reactor. The difference is, Vermont’s waste has been piling up longer.
GUNDERSEN: There’s probably about 30 years worth of nuclear fuel still up there on the roof of the building. So Vermont has about three times more nuclear fuel on its top floor than Fukushima did.
YOUNG: Gundersen says incidents at the plant lead him to think it’s beginning to show its age.
GUNDERSEN: Over last six years or so, Vermont Yankee had a major fire, and then, two years later, they had the cooling tower collapse. And then, two years after that, they had the tritium leak. So we had three really significant mechanical problems.
YOUNG: Gundersen says the tritium leak also undermined public confidence in the plant’s management. He was on a state appointed review panel that had asked if there were pipes under the plant that carry any radioactive products.
GUNDERSEN: We were told there were no underground pipes. I discovered after the fact, that - oh my god, there really are underground pipes - and of course, Entergy continued to deny that. Well 3 months after that, an underground pipe broke and leaked strontium, caesium, tritium and manganese and cobalt 60 into the ground in the plant.
[HIGHWAY NOISE OUTSIDE POWER PLANT GATES]
YOUNG:Vermont Yankee is on a tree-lined plot between highway 142 and the river in the town of Vernon. New Hampshire is just across the River, the Massachusetts' line is a few miles to the south.
Company spokesperson Larry Smith says an event akin to the Japanese crisis could not happen here. He points out the plant’s backup power and cooling systems and safety design. It’s built to withstand a 6.0 earthquake and stands higher than the crest of highest recorded flood.
SMITH: So there’s defense and depth and redundant systems. You can never say never - but we have the capabilities, we feel, to certainly shut the plant down safely and to always protect public health and safety.
YOUNG: Tell me about safety incidents you’ve had at Vermont Yankee - what’s gone wrong here?
SMITH: We’ve had no safety incidents at Vermont Yankee.
YOUNG: Maybe this is a matter of semantics, but there was a collapse of a cooling tower, correct?
SMITH: That’s right and that’s industrial safety, and that happened in 2007. Put it into perspective. You’re talking about a 20- ft section of a 460-foot tower, that’s what collapsed.
YOUNG: There was a transformer fire?
SMITH: In 2004. The transformer was not on fire, it was the bus duct on top of it, but that can happen at any power plant.
YOUNG: Also the manner in which information has come to light has led some people to express to me a lack of confidence that they’re getting open communication. For example, how did the tritium leak, how did that come to light?
SMITH: It came to light because industry, in 2007, undertook a voluntary groundwater protection program and put in monitoring wells. We identified tritium and the same day we told NRC and we told the state of Vermont. So I don’t know what you mean about not being transparent or not being straightforward.
YOUNG: There was a denial that the pipe system existed and only after persistence by a watchdog did your company admit, oh yes there’ a pipe system and oh, by the way, it’s leaking.
SMITH: Well, I can tell you we did a lousy job providing testimony to the Vermont Public Service Board on the extent of our pipes, but we have a lot of support in the state of Vermont. We certainly have a lot of support from this community, the host community, for the continued operation of Vermont Yankee and this station.
YOUNG: A walk around the neighborhood shows Smith is right about that. Some residents in Vernon have yard signs showing support. There’s no sense of alarm, even just across the street from the plant at Vernon Elementary. Mark Speno is the school’s principal.
SPENO: We’re a small town, we have a school, we have a nuclear power plant. No, it’s not that odd. It’s part of the community. I’m certainly comfortable or I wouldn’t be here.
YOUNG: Supporters say the plant’s 650 megawatts supply one third of the state’s power, and, they add, it’s carbon-free power. Vermont seems split on its lone nuclear power plant. For example, voters last year elected a lieutenant governor who voted to keep Vermont Yankee going and a governor who wants to shut it down. Democrat Peter Shumlin is governor.
SHUMLIN: I just feel strongly when you have an aging, tired nuclear power plant run by a company you can’t trust, you got to stop and breathe for a moment and say, hey, how much sense does this make?
YOUNG: Governor Shumlin is confident that the state’s position will withstand a legal challenge from Entergy. And he offered a challenge of his own to other states that have aging nuclear reactors.
SHUMLIN: It’s clear that the federal policy is: Run ‘em as long as you possibly can, and hope, keep your fingers crossed, that Japan doesn’t happen in America. I personally think that that is a gamble that’s likely to fail. And I would encourage other states to take matters into their own hands and control of their own destiny.
YOUNG: There are indications other states might do just that. Entergy-owned reactors in Massachusetts and New York will need license renewals within the next two years. Lawmakers and the two states’ attorneys general have asked the NRC to take a closer look at how those plants operate and store spent fuel. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Vernon, Vermont.
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