Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016

by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
Dummerston, Vermont
March 25, 2011
On Native Ground

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DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I've been living and working next to a nuclear plant for the past two decades.

When I first moved to southeast Vermont, I knew the about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, just 15.6 miles from us by road - and less as the crow flies. Nobody paid a great deal of attention to it back then. It ran safely and was a unobtrusive presence, or as unobtrusive as a nuclear reactor can be.

However, this reactor, which went online in 1972, shares the same design - with all its flaws - as the doomed reactors in Fukushima, Japan.

But Vermont Yankee quietly chugged along for 30 years and few Vermonters questioned its continued operation. All that changed when the plant was sold to Louisiana-based Entergy on July 31, 2002.

Entergy agreed to pay $145 million to the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp., a consortium of New England electric utilities that were the original builders of Vermont Yankee, for the 510-megawatt plant, and agreed to sell the electricity it generated at 4.2 cents per kilowatt hour.

In 2006, Entergy announced its intentions to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a 20-year extension of its original operating license, which is due to expire in 2012. It also asked for and received permission to increase the power output of the plant by 20 percent.

The list of leaks, equipment failures and assorted other mishaps that happened after the so-called "uprate" is too long and detailed to be related here. The Safe and Green Campaign, one of the anti-nuclear groups that advocates its shutdown, has a good compendium of them all.

Perhaps the most spectacular mishap occurred in August 2007, when a section of one of the plant's cooling towers collapsed. While opposition to Vermont Yankee's license renewal had been growing, the image of water cascading from a open pipe onto a pile of twisted metal and wood pushed the debate to a whole new level.

Suddenly, Vermont Yankee wasn't a benign entity anymore. It was an aging nuclear plant running at 120 percent of its designed generating capacity with a lengthy list of problems and several hundred tons of radioactive waste.

At Vermont Yankee, there are about 640 tons of spent fuel rods onsite, roughly 10 times the amount that's stored at the Fukushima reactors. Most are sitting in a swimming-pool sized spent fuel pool, and there is considerable doubt that the backup water-circulation systems and backup electric generators that are supposed to kick in during a power outage will work.

The NRC also has known for decades that the containment vessels on the Mark 1 plants, designed by General Electric, would not maintain their integrity in a nuclear accident. Yet the NRC allowed Vermont Yankee, and other plants that use the Mark 1 design, to continue to operate.

Despite claims that the containment vessel has been reinforced, the track record of Entergy's ownership does little to inspire confidence.

For example, for the past year, there has been tritium-laced water leaking out of the plant from underground pipes and into the soil. Plant officials denied the existence of these pipes until the leaks were so large and widespread that they had to backtrack their original claims.

In a perfect example of bad timing, the NRC said it would extend Vermont Yankee's license a day before the earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan, and there is virtually no chance the NRC will change its mind.

But Vermont has something that no other state that hosts a nuclear plant has - the power to shut down the plant even if the NRC gives it authorization to continue operating. Last year, the Vermont Senate directed the state Public Service Board to not issue a Certificate of Public Good to Entergy. This is the document that every power plant in the state needs to operate.

The state asked for, and Entergy agreed, for the right to do this if it was not in the best interest of the citizens of Vermont to allow the plant to keep running for an additional 20 years. But now, it looks like Entergy is assembling a team of lawyers to take the state to court to sue the state for the right to stay open. The case may take years to settle, and Vermont could still end up losing.

Despite a concerted public relations blitz by Entergy to convince Vermonters that economic doom awaits them if Vermont Yankee closes, few are buying it. Vermont Yankee contributes only 2 percent of New England's electricity supply, and Vermont electric utilities have already lined up other power sources. Electric prices will rise slightly, but the lights will stay on.

A tsunami or a massive earthquake is unlikely in southern Vermont. But a major flood or hurricane is within the realm of possibility, as is a mechanical failure or plain old human error. And there still is 640 tons of highly dangerous nuclear waste sitting by the banks of the Connecticut River inside an aged nuclear plant run by a corporation that, like every corporation, has as its primary responsibility improving its profitability.

Every day that Vermont Yankee keeps running increases the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. A majority of Vermonters want the plant shut down on schedule on March 21, 2012. The Fukushima disaster ripped the veneer of complacency off the nuclear industry, and nothing it says can convince us that nuclear power is still - as Vermont Yankee has claimed in its ads - "safe, clean, and reliable."

It's time to shut down Vermont Yankee, and the 102 other nuclear reactors in the United States, and move toward an energy future built on renewable energy.

Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut, a graduate of the JFK School of Government at Harvard University and winner of the 2007 Best Editorial Writer honors of the Vermont Press Association, has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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