Friday, February 19, 2010

What's a Little Radioactive Waste Between Neighbors?

Vernon is a small town located in the very south-easternmost corner of Vermont. Vernon is just across the Connecticut River from NH, and was once part of the NH town of Hinsdale. Vernon, VT is best known for being the home of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. VT Yankee has been making news recently, because of radioactive tritium leaking from the plant. Tritium is leaking into the Connecticut River, which is a source for drinking water in the area. Five NH towns are included within the ten mile evacuation zone surrounding the plant. They are: Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Richmond, Swanzey, and Winchester. The entire towns of Chesterfield, Hinsdale, and Winchester are within that 10 mile zone.

Vermont Yankee is no stranger to problems. The plant went online in 1973. During its first 17 months of operation, the plant was shut down 19 times. In the 70’s there were problems with faulty fuel rods, a cracked torus, and there was the accidental dumping of 83,000 gallons of tritium contaminated water into the Connecticut River in 1976.

The plant was given a 40 year license, which expires in 2012. At that time, the plant is supposed to close down and be decommissioned. VT Yankee is owned by Entergy Corporation, a company that owns a number of nuclear plants, and has been quite successful in extending the licensing of old, unsafe plants that could not be built today. They’re trying to do the same in VT. Entergy is trying to extend the license of VT Yankee for another 20 years. They’re also planning to unload 5 old nuke plants on a subsidiary called Enexus. Enexus seems to be comprised solely of debt and antique nuclear power plants, which sounds like a sure fire recipe for success, in an Enron sort of way.

Over the last decade, Vermont Yankee’s problems have increased. In July of 2003, a drill revealed that the emergency alert system wasn’t working. In the event of an accident at the plant, the sirens would not have gone off. In June of 2004, a fire shut down the plant. The fire was caused by a part of an expansion joint that fell off into a duct, and created electrical shorts that started the fire. The duct conducts electricity from the generator to the transformer, and was part of the original construction of the plant, which was 32 years old at the time.

In 2005, Entergy hired a company to do an inspection of the plant (notably the cooling towers), and the company gave VT Yankee a glowing report, which Entergy presented to the NRC. In 2007, one of the cooling towers collapsed. The cause of the collapse was rotting beams inside the tower. Entergy used robotic cameras to perform inspections, and the cameras weren’t able to reach the areas where the rot was greatest. Entergy promised to be more vigilant. Federal and state regulators were pleased. The NRC performed an inspection in 2008 and found only 3 minor faults. The plant got high marks. Then more beams collapsed in a cooling tower. Entergy promised an improved quality assurance program that would include new hiring. In 2009, Entergy announced a hiring freeze.

In May of 2009, Jay Thayer (then) Vice President of Operations at VT Yankee told the Vermont Public Service Board that there was no underground piping at VT Yankee. On January 7, 2010, Vermont Yankee reported that the plant was leaking radioactive tritium into several groundwater monitoring wells. It turns out that the tritium is probably coming from underground pipes. The same underground pipes that Entergy said didn’t exist, only last year. Turns out there are several thousand feet of underground pipes. You may be discerning a pattern here, on the part of Entergy. It goes like this, lie, promise, and lie some more. Jay Thayer was outed as a liar, and has been placed on “administrative leave” pending investigation, which could be interpreted as “he’ll be back when the furor dies down.” Until his return, Entergy has practiced fibber Rob Williams as their spokesperson for VT Yankee. Rob Williams was the spokesliar for Seabrook Station back in the good old days of the junk-bond bail-out.

Vermont is the only state that gives its legislature a say in the licensing of nuclear plants. Other states leave it up to the state utility regulators and the NRC. As we know from the FairPoint debacle, state utility regulators are certainly not infallible. The NRC has never been an effective regulatory body. They prefer to cheer lead for the industry, as opposed to ensuring safety. Vermont’s decision to give the legislature a say ensures that the people of VT will have a voice for their concerns about the safety of this plant. The legislature must agree to extend that license, and the likelihood of that extension being granted isn’t looking good.

In NH, the reporting on this issue has been pretty negligent. The Keene Sentinel is the only paper I’ve found that’s done a responsible job of covering VT Yankee. Keene, of course, is mighty close to the 10 mile evacuation zone. The rest of the media has been quite selective in their coverage. Congressman Paul Hodes, who is running for Judd Gregg’s US Senate seat has been vocal in his concerns about VT Yankee and its impact on NH. I spoke with Congressman Hodes earlier in the week, and he said that NH should have a voice in the oversight of VT Yankee, since leaks do not respect state borders, and that those leaks have an impact on the people of our state and the Connecticut River. Hodes intends to introduce legislation in Congress that would give states that would be affected by neighboring nuclear power plants more authority over them.

Meanwhile, the excavation of the formerly non-existent underground pipes at VT Yankee continues, in an effort to learn where, exactly, that radioactive tritium is coming from, as it continues to leech into the Connecticut River.

“In essence, a nuclear reactor is a very dangerous, expensive way to boil water – analogous to cutting a pound of butter with a chain saw.”
Dr. Helen Caldicott

© sbruce 2010 published as an op-ed in the February 19, 2010 edition of the Conway Daily Sun


DissedBelief said...

I'm thrilled you've addressed this Susan. I've watched/listened and pounded my fists in amazement at (naturally) predominantly the Republicans touting the bennies of nuclear energy. This, coupled with their denial of health coverage to the rest of us shows absolutley their disdain for the health and welfare of their folk.

It's time to shut down this nuclear site and NOT build anymore. They are absolutely not the solution to our energy "problems". We receive far more sunlight here than people realize. It's free and can indeed be utilized along with other common sense and already operating "new age" energy systems. Another oustanding issue addressed Susan!

Anonymous said...

Governments should never have given nuclear power plants licenses, it seems to act as a immunizer against pollution and property right lawsuits.