Thursday, October 15, 2009

Columnist Dr. Karen Scott

There are less than 150 days before the next session of the VT
legislature convenes, at which time the future of the aging nuclear
reactor to our north will again be discussed. The reactor continues
to make headlines on a regular basis, with mishaps, structural
collapses, and increasing radioactive emissions. Despite all this,
Entergy and the NRC continue to insist that Everything is Fine!

In January 2006, as you may recall, Entergy applied to extend the
operating license of Vermont Yankee for 20 years beyond its initial 40
year license, which is due to expire in 2012. The NRC has yet to
refuse a license extension to a nuclear plant in this country. Later
that spring they requested and received approval for an "uprate" of
their power generation by 20%, meaning the reactor operates with 20%
more heat and pressure than it was designed to withstand, and earns
more profits for its Louisiana based corporate owner, Entergy. It is
the oldest reactor in the country to be approved for such an uprate.
Many citizens and legislators in Vermont and Massachusetts have voiced
concern about the safety of the reactor, and it has been under intense
public scrutiny. You would think that at such a time, they would be on
their best behavior.

So what happened? Shortly after the uprate was complete, one of the
cooling towers collapsed. Surely you saw the photos, thousands of
gallons of water spewing over a pile of rubble. Within 10 days of
this photogenic disaster, the plant experienced a sudden emergency
shutdown, or SCRAM. Shortly thereafter, a crane lifting 100 tons of
spent fuel malfunctioned, dropping its load to the floor. Had the
cask fallen more than 4 inches, perhaps back into the spent fuel pool,
it could have caused a major disaster. In May, we were informed there
had been a "security breach" earlier in the year, with absolutely no
details given. The list of incidents such as these extends back
throughout the plant's history, and continues to lengthen. Even
Vermont's pro-nuke governor, Jim Douglas, has said it seems as if
"Homer Simpson is running the place."

Is it safe from a terrorist attack? An NRC document, "Report on Spent
Fuel Pool Accident Risk," concludes that the containment structures of
aging plants such as VY "present no substantial obstacle to aircraft
penetration." Nevertheless, the NRC refuses to address issues of
vulnerability to terrorist attacks or viability of evacuation plans
when considering license renewals. This is considered a "local
problem," not a reason to deny relicensure. Do you have a personal
plan for keeping your family safe in the event of catastrophic nuclear
accident? Put it on your to-do list!

Even if this decrepit reactor could be maintained and operated with
perfection, it still would be far from safe. Nuclear power is
inherently unsafe. Vermont Yankee, like all nuclear power plants,
releases radiation as a known and accepted side effect of its
operation. It now releases 30% more radiation than it did in previous
years, as a result of the "uprate" in 2006.

The decision to store low-level radioactive waste on site, as well as
plans for on site high-level waste storage, will only increase the
radiation released. This gift that keeps on giving will be with us
for the rest of most of our lives, as Entergy has announced plans not
to decommission the plant for 60 years, regardless of license renewal.

Radiation causes cancer. There is no debate on this. There is also
no safe dose of radiation. Background radiation causes some cancers,
and additional exposure brings additional risk. Currently, the
lifetime risk of cancer of any type for Americans is about 40%. Do we
really need to increase that?

There is no viable long term strategy for safely storing radioactive
waste, which retains its deadly properties for 100,000 years. No
country has yet found a solution to this problem, because one does not
exist. To suggest that we can ensure the containment of massive
quantities of radioactive waste for longer than all of recorded human
history is sheer hubris.

Proponents of nuclear power look to it as an answer to global warming,
but this is a fallacy. An MIT study concluded that it would take 300
new nuclear power plants in the U.S., and 1500 worldwide, to have any
effect on climate change, and that effect would not be seen for a
decade. Never mind that building new plants entails massive carbon
emissions during construction, and there is likely not enough uranium
left in the ground to run all those plants even if they were built.

Nuclear power is a dead end, and the reactor to our north is a
striking example of this. Despite repeated mishaps, the NRC continues
to assure the public the reactor is "safe" even as it refuses to allow
local citizens and lawmakers the slightest say in if or how the plant
is run. However, the Vermont legislature recently passed a bill
granting itself the right to vote on whether to allow Vermont Yankee's
license renewal. This is an unprecedented opportunity to take back
our energy future! If you are sick of worrying about the next Vermont
Yankee headline, get involved with Citizens Awareness Network
( or the New England Coalition
( Do something!
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