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Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant facility, photographed March 13, 2011 in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan with deadly force. The Mark I nuclear reactor is the same design as Entergy Nuclear’s Vermont Yankee reactor in Vernon.

Voices / Viewpoint

Fukushima, four years later

What can we learn about the potential dangers of spent nuclear fuel here, in the shadow of Vermont Yankee?

Ann Darling, a member of the Safe and Green Campaign, writes that she left the Brattleboro area, her home of 35 years, “to get as far away from [Vermont Yankee] as I could and still keep my job. Once I got my son through high school, I had to deal with my anxiety at living so close to VY by moving.”

But, she adds, “Clearly I still love my Vermont home enough to fight very hard for it.”

The Safe and Green Campaign will hold a march, vigil, and a discussion on nuclear waste on Saturday, March 14; a story appears in this week’s Town & Village section. “To connect with others who care, please join us,” Darling writes.

Easthampton, Mass.

March 11 marks the four-year anniversary of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan. That’s when an earthquake and tsunami damaged the facilities’ cooling systems to the extent that the hot radioactive fuel melted, burned, and exploded, causing massive radiation releases. Radiation damages human, animal, and plant tissue, causing mutation and disease. It lasts for a very long time.

In our region, we have at least three good reasons to learn from Fukushima. I’m not talking about our shared humanity with the 160,000 Fukushima evacuees, half of whom have not returned home and probably never will — although that is reason enough.

The other reasons are called Vermont Yankee in southeastern Vermont, Pilgrim Nuclear near Boston, and Indian Point, just north of New York City.

All these aging reactor complexes are owned by Entergy and contain decades’ worth of spent radioactive fuel, some of which is still hot enough to cause the same type of disaster that happened in Fukushima.

It wouldn’t take an earthquake or tsunami to cause the cooling systems and venting at our three “nuke neighbors” to fail — just some mundane human error, or a really brutal winter storm, or a terrorist attack. (Although I have to tell you, folks: Indian Point is near a fault line that makes the area earthquake prone. Why is it still allowed to operate?)

In Vermont, we now have a shut-down reactor and a cooling pool overstuffed with spent fuel, some of which will take up to five years to cool enough to be moved into safer dry casks.

Yet Entergy wants to stop investing in any emergency planning one year from now.

And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) just agreed to let that happen. The financial and technical burden of evacuation will fall to the states and local governments of 15 towns in the 10-mile evacuation zone of Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

* * *

What can we learn from Fukushima four years later?

First, we have to know what’s going on in the evacuated towns around the Daiichi facility — an exclusion zone of contaminated soil, air, and buildings that will virtually never be habitable:

• Airborne radiation is still escaping from those damaged reactors, and even in Tokyo, 180 miles away, radiation levels have gotten very high.

• Rates of thyroid abnormalities and cancer among evacuated children are well above typical levels, and many other diseases are increasing as well.

• Plants and animals are mutating into grotesque forms, even outside the zone close to the reactors, and normal-looking food must be tested for radioactivity.

• Approximately 400 tons of groundwater are flowing through the damaged reactors and into the Pacific Ocean every day.

• Pieces of melted radioactive fuel assemblies have been found floating in the Pacific.

• Radionuclides have gone into the upper atmosphere above the ocean, then fallen as mist after they have been chilled. They are now in suspension on the ocean surface and have gotten to the coast of the U.S. and Canada. To me, this means, among other things, that even if the risk of a nuclear accident is small, its consequences far outweigh my willingness to live with that risk.

* * *

In Japan, people are also dealing with issues around democracy, the free flow of information, and people’s control over their own safety.

Japan has fallen from its place among the top 12 countries in freedom of the press to number 53 since the passage of a state secrets law. The government promotes restarting most of Japan’s nuclear reactors, despite strong citizen opposition.

Local residents measure radiation on their own because they don’t trust their clearly pro-nuclear government. Some were forced to return to contaminated areas where they used to live once the government cut off compensation for having to evacuate. Doctors are being threatened with losing their license if they tie the spike in unusual illnesses to radiation.

In our own unique U.S. way, these same issues of democracy and local control are playing out here.

I have been an anti-nuke, pro-green energy activist for years. I’ve sat through numerous hearings with the Nuclear Regulatory Commisson (NRC) and in meetings of local citizen and economic-development groups.

The NRC is not accountable to us, the people who live here.

Entergy is barely accountable to the NRC.

Entergy walked all over Vermont’s legislature, which simply tried to wrest some degree of local control from the NRC-Entergy partnership.

The whole problem goes back to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which basically said, “Nuclear power is too complicated for the run-of-the-mill citizen to understand, so we’re going to place all decisions about safety of nuclear power into the hands of the government — or more specifically, into the hands of an arcane bureaucracy staffed by people who have worked in the nuclear industry.”

I have seen the dehumanizing and fundamentally undemocratic basis of that law play out time and time again. Entergy meets the regulations (most of the time), but are the regulations good, and are they being enforced? Are they protecting us? Who is in charge of our lives and our beautiful valley?

Once we allowed Vermont Yankee to burrow its way into the banks of our river, we lost a lot of control.

* * *

All this is difficult to hear. It’s tempting to just walk away, to feel powerless. Don’t do it. (Besides, you can’t get away from the radiation from Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island, so you might as well work like hell to stop from being exposed to any more.)

Give yourself the gift of being able to look the next generations in the eye and say, “I asked questions. I spoke up.”

We have already shown Entergy and the NRC that Vermonters, and the great citizens of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, don’t like to be told what to do.

We need to keep letting Entergy, the NRC, and Congress know that we are learning, watching, and taking our own health and safety as seriously as they should.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #296 (Wednesday, March 11, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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