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‘Who could’ve seen this coming? Plenty of us.’

Editor’s note: In the aftermath of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval last week of Entergy Nuclear’s application to extend its license to operate Vermont Yankee for another 20 years — a decision announced just one day before the devastating earthquakes, tsunami, and consequent nuclear catastrophe hit Japan — we invited some of the area’s nuclear critics to comment on the confluence of the events. As always, we welcome your responses and all points of view on these pages, a point we often underscore when we get anywhere near the issue of VY and its fate.

Leslie Staudinger

It is very easy to put myself in the shoes of a mother in Japan right now. I live four miles from a nuclear power plant that is a 40-year-old General Electric boiling-water reactor, like the ones melting down in Japan.

I imagine being told to evacuate my family (three children and two pets), along with 140,000 other people, into a homeland that is already a disaster from an earthquake and a tsunami. I imagine myself knowing I am leading them into a radiation zone. I imagine not being able to smell it, see it, feel it.

I imagine myself thinking that things must be really bad if they are evacuating us into this disaster zone. They’ve never evacuated us before.

I imagine myself doing so based on the word of my government and the corporation that owns the plant, both of which have lied to me about nuclear power in the past.

The BBC reports that four executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Japanese firm that owns the reactor, were forced to resign after lying in 2000, and twice since more lies have been documented.

Back in Vermont, Entergy has a similar history, and executives were let go.

In 1979, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission didn’t have people evacuate until two days after the partial meltdown of the reactor core at Three Mile Island, and it took three months before they admitted there even was a meltdown.

They deny anyone has ever been harmed by Three Mile Island. Tell that to my sick relatives in the documented cancer cluster down there.

On Thursday, as I sat in the offices of the New England Coalition, I listened live to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s announcement that it had concluded that Vermont Yankee is safe enough to receive its approval to operate for another 20 years.

I was calm and proud.

The coalition had fought relicensing for six years and forced the NRC (and Entergy, and Vermont) to look at metal fatigue, high-energy pipe thinning, submerged electrical cables, and other safety issues. Our intervention made the plant a little less dangerous.

I felt relief when, in his remarks, Chairman Gregory Jaczko stated clearly that there are other regulatory bodies that Entergy needs approvals from.

I felt relief when he would not speculate on what would happen if the plant’s ability to operate went to the courts.

All the NRC did was say that the plant was “safe.”

Do I agree? Running at 120 percent of what it was designed to do, 40 years old, in need of a lot of expensive pieces and parts, leaking tritium and who knows what, from where to where?

Of course I do not think it’s safe. But after the press conference, I felt relieved. After all, we knew this moment was coming; the NRC has approved 62 out of 62 relicensing applications.

Now Vermont can focus on prompt, effective decommissioning that keeps local folks employed and transforms the property into something that can be developed and productive again. The New England Coalition and all its allies will have our hands full with the many steps between the NRC’s safety stamp of approval on Thursday and our ultimate goal of bringing the site into green field condition.

And then, on Friday, Japan was hit: earthquake, tsunami, nuclear shutdown.

I have tried to do the responsible thing. I have tried to find the facts, sifting through the extremes — corporate-owned media, corporate nuclear, apologists, alarmists, American, BBC, Russian, Japanese. I’ve spoken with scientists, engineers, activists. I am less educated in the issues than many and more than some.


I imagine myself a mother in Japan. I am one of 140,000 people shepherding my children into a world where radiation is invisible, trusting those who have lied to me.

Leslie Staudinger, of Brattleboro, serves as a trustee for the New England Coalition.

Nancy Braus

To those of us who have been deeply involved in the struggle to close Vermont Yankee in a safe and timely manner, the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant failures of the past few days feel like one more overwhelming call to find another way to power our world.

We need to find a way to change the mentality that allows a corporation to sell power at a huge potential cost in an unforeseen crisis.

And there will always be a disaster sooner or later.

Nuclear plants built on fault lines, in the potential aim of a terrorist, in a flood plain, or just near a population are always a potential source of danger.

Those of us who live and work near Vermont Yankee or other nuclear plants do not bear this information in mind every second or every day, but when we are reminded again of the great and uncontrolled power of the split atom, it is clear that we do not need this level of danger in our state.

The plants that are failing in Japan are boilingwater reactors, of the same sort as Vermont Yankee. I don’t know if such a scenario could ever happen, but watching the sheer power of water from the tsunami, I thought about what the Connecticut River could become should the water level rise spectacularly, due to climate change and a prolonged and heavy period of precipitation.

The situation in Japan is changing rapidly, but as of this morning (March 12), an area of 20 kilometers (12.42 miles) around one of the nuclear plants was evacuated.

If such an area around Vermont Yankee were to be cleared out, most of you readers would need to leave your homes without knowing when you could return. The Japanese government has been making announcements of “controlled releases” of radiation. Of course, these are “not dangerous to the public.”

I am guessing that the Japanese people, who have seen the worst consequences of nuclear radiation in the history of the world, are not comforted.

To the surprise of nobody, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last week granted Vermont Yankee an operating license for 20 more years. The NRC is as concerned with the continued existence of the nuclear industry as it is with the safety of the plants, the surrounding people, and the environment — maybe more.

New England Coalition and others have brought repeated and credible arguments before the NRC as to why Vermont Yankee is too risky, too old, and too poorly maintained to run for another 21 years from now.

These arguments have delayed the approval process, much to the chagrin of Republican senators, who fight all environmental protection, but uncertainty about receiving a license from the NRC was one of the few risks Entergy Vermont Yankee did not face in this process.

While the nuclear industry and its backers will consider the license a green light to continue operation of Vermont Yankee, they face the little problem of the law.

Entergy agreed that they would not keep the plant operating if both houses of the Vermont Legislature did not vote to recommend a Certificate of Public Good from the Public Service Board. Company officials also consented, again under oath, not to contest this agreement in court.

There is no ambiguity here: Vermonters have the right to tell Entergy that 40 years is enough of this plant, that we can and will do better, and that our power can come from sources that do not produce carcinogens, require evacuation drills, and result in the most toxic waste on earth.

Nancy Braus of Putney, a longtime antinuclear activist, is an active member of the antinuclear Safe and Green Coalition. She co-owns and operates Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro.

Deb Katz

Let me begin by offering thoughts and prayers to the Japanese people in their terrible hour of need.

It is painfully ironic that just as the NRC announces its relicensing of Vermont Yankee, there is an escalating accident at a series of reactors in Japan. They are the same reactors — the General Electric Mark I — as the ones at our local nuke in Vernon.

The NRC’s relicensing provides us with little comfort or confidence, as two of the Mark Is in Japan have moved into a partial meltdown, and others are struggling to maintain integrity.

Of course, the NRC immediately announced that this kind of accident could never happen here. The nuclear industry, over the last number of years, has treated public concern of an accident as a neurotic “fear” response due to the public’s “lack of information.”

Consider, too, the contempt of the pro-nuke proponents — comparing radiation exposure from a reactor to eating bananas or standing near exit signs!

Unfortunately, the charm of those bananas wears thin as 200,000 people are evacuated from around those nuclear stations, and we see pictures of masked children being checked for radiation exposure.

Act 160 was passed by the Vermont legislature in 2006 to provide Vermonters with the ability to determine their own collective future. Last year, the people of Vermont overwhelmingly expressed their wish for a truly clean energy future with the Senate’s vote of 26-4, which will effectively mark the closure of Vermont Yankee in March of 2012.

This vote was based on a state’s right to choose what kind of energy is generated within its borders. This vote focused on the issues of reliability, the environment, and trustworthiness — never on safety, the exclusive right of the NRC.

This irony is not lost on the people of Vermont.

Deb Katz, of Rowe, Mass., serves as executive director of Citizens Awareness Network.

William Pearson

Many of us have been following the news about Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. Several nuclear power plants in that country have been affected. 140,000 people have been evacuated. Former NRC Commissioner Peter Bradford has remarked that no government would evacuate that many people were the situation not extremely serious.

As of 2:30 p.m., Sunday, the reactor core of Unit 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was uncovered, a condition having the potential to cause a core meltdown. Unit 3 is a General Electric Mark I boiling water reactor (BWR).

There are 23 Mark Is in the United States. A top Atomic Energy Commission official advocated banning this design almost 40 years ago. Of those 23 reactors, 20 (including, as of last Thursday, Vermont Yankee) have now received 20-year license extensions from The Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

What’s going on in Japan can inform us about the potential disaster of allowing Vermont Yankee to operate beyond March 21, 2012, instead of developing renewable sources, conserving energy, and using it more efficiently.

Or we can choose to ignore things like Vermont Yankee’s daily production of high-level radioactive waste, deadly for 500,000 years or more.

We can ignore the plant’s vulnerable irradiated fuel pool, its routine emission of radionuclides into the environment (Google “BEIR VII” for a report on the biological effects of ionizing radiation), its leakage of tritium and other isotopes into the public-domain groundwater, its flawed reactor containment design, its questionable history of maintenance, its spurious public relations, and its conceivable meltdown in the event of a local earthquake.

As H.G. Wells once said: “History is a race between education and catastrophe.”

Bill Pearson, of Brattleboro, is a longtime area antinuclear activist.

George Harvey

I remember when I first was told there was danger of simultaneous nuclear meltdowns in Japan. It was not in March of 2011. It was in 1976.

And it was not the result of an active imagination of an unscientific nuclear activist. It was from a scientist with a doctorate, a polymath who had been active in many fields of science for many years.

What he said was something like this: “All it takes is one strong earthquake, one big tidal wave, and all the safety infrastructure for a number of nuclear power plants could be knocked out simultaneously. I have no idea what they will do to deal with it. But the event is too likely to ignore.” He was worried.

Who could have seen this coming? Plenty of us. We have heard it talked of many times. We have been braced for it for years.

We, however, are the anti-nuclear activists. The nuclear scientists, nuclear engineers, and nuclear industry, the government made more powerful and the corporations made rich by nuclear power plants, have not talked of it. They have been in denial.

They will tell you this is a unique event. They will say it is an unprecedented disaster. The Japanese did everything right, I have read in the reports; they were just unprepared for events that were unforeseeable.

But why? The disaster in Japan is not unique in the intensity of the earthquake, nor was it unique in the magnitude of the tsunami. It is not even unusual, when we look at history. Japan has been hit by much worse earthquakes and by much larger tsunamis.

Possibly the worst earthquake/tsunami combination in recent centuries in Japan was when part of Mount Unzen erupted and collapsed into the sea in 1792. The resulting tsunami waves were over 300 feet tall.

There were others, of course, combining tsunamis and earthquakes — many recent ones with an earthquake or tsunami as great or greater than the one that hit Sendai. In fact, the Sendai disaster is just one of the normal disasters that happen from time to time.

So the question is not who could have known, but why did they not know? The warnings were based on science and history. The ignorance was not based on a lack of information, but on a lack of willingness to look at clear, obvious dangers.

So now, perhaps, we should be asking new questions.

Is the ignorance of the nuclear industry and the government that supports it willful? And does it constitute gross indifference to human life?

George Harvey, of Brattleboro, is a writer and volunteer with the New England Coalition who writes often about nuclear issues .

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Originally published in The Commons issue #92 (Wednesday, March 16, 2011).

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