by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 6, 2010
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When President Barack Obama said, during his State of the Union speech, "But to create more of these clean energy jobs... that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country," I literally howled. How could an ostensibly intelligent man be so wrong, wrong, wrong?
There's always been one glaring problem with nuclear power: the waste. It's hard to call nuclear power "clean" when the radioactive waste piles up day after day, week after week, year after year, remaining dangerously radioactive for milennia without anyone having a clue of how to get rid of it.
That was the problem in the 1970s, and it's the problem now. For a long time, private industry built the plants while the federal government took responsibility for the waste.
But the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada is a dead disposable waste site walking. There are no other plans. There are no safe ways to get the stuff to a site if there was one. And there is now way too much waste.
So really, there is no argument in favor of nuclear power. Just as you can't legally or responsibly build a house without a sewer line or a septic system, how can you build a nuclear power plant without a waste depository? Dry casks sitting around above ground for the next few thousand years? Does that really sound like a good idea? Will our great-great-grandchildren really thank us for that?
When I first moved to Brattleboro in 1987, I had no idea the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant was here in Vernon. When I got my first newspaper job, which was covering the town for the Brattleboro Reformer, the editors joked that I would soon be glowing in the dark. I didn't know what they meant.
But eventually I became accustomed to living near Yankee. When it was owned by Vermont's electric power companies, it appeared to be a remarkably safe and well-run operation. And since it was built to be decommissioned in 2012, it would soon be closed.
Then Yankee was sold to out-of-state Energy Nuclear, which planned to extend its life for another 20 years. Gov. James Douglas supported the plan. Even when Energy decided to spin off Yankee and four other nukes into a separate corporation with $3.6 billion of debt, Douglas smiled upon them.
Now Energy is spending a lot of money on an emotion-driven ad campaign to relicense the plant: Don't put your neighbor out of work; nuclear energy is "clean" and "green." Its opponents are writing impassioned letters to the editor about cancer clusters, escape routes, finances and how the French are killing the oceans by dumping their nuclear waste there.
But plain, cold, hard and visible facts are now replacing emotion, conjecture and outright lies. First a missing fuel rod, then a transformer fire, then a cooling tower collapse and the usual leak-of-the-week has escalated to elevated levels of radioactive tritium being found in groundwater monitoring wells near the plant.
The source is underground pipes - pipes which the management of Energy swore did not exist. And although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that tritium has not appeared in the local groundwater or in the nearby Connecticut River - yet! - the levels of radioactivity keep rising. People who live near the plant are getting nervous. What happens to their drinking water? What happens to their property values? How can years of low property taxes make up for this?
This week, the head of the plant - the guy who swore there were no underground pipes - lost his job. Is he a token sacrifice? Will his firing help in any way? We'll have to stay tuned to find out.
Also this week, the head of the Vermont Senate loudly supported closing and decommissioning the plant. (The Vermont Legislature gets to vote on relicensing, but it appears that the NRC could override them.)
I'm no expert on nuclear power, but it's clear that we're in the end game now. And I have a few thoughts.
First, the same way you look for an earring by lifting the rug, sooner or later the plant will have to be taken apart to look for the leaky pipes.
When that happens, no matter how hard we fight, a new plant will probably be built to replace it. I know - I know! - we shouldn't be building any more nuclear power plants. But Obama is in favor of them, and if there's one thing the Iraq War has taught me, it's that no matter how many marches you make, how many candles you light, how many column inches you write and how right you are, you can't stop a wrong-headed president from getting his wrong-headed way.
So if we have to build the next nuke, let's put it right next to Gov. Jim Douglas's house. Wrap a ribbon around it so that he can cut it. Our parting gift to you, Jim. Thanks for the memories.
And where should we put the dry casks? I'll leave that to your imagination.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist in Vermont. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.