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Nuclear power, post-Fukushima

Could VY fall prey to the same catastrophe?

With additional reporting by Randolph T. Holhut.

BRATTLEBORO—By this time next year, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon will either continue churning out the megawatts, or it will go dark.

But in the meantime, across the Pacific Ocean in Japan, engineers work tirelessly to prevent a meltdown at the six nuclear reactors in Fukushima which were damaged by a 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

Vermont Yankee and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station were both built in the early 1970s and both share the same General Electric-designed Mark 1 reactor and containment building.

This worries nuclear energy opponents here in Windham County. But since the Japan disaster, Entergy Nuclear has been bombarded with variations of this question: Can the same type of nuclear disaster happen in Vernon?

Vermont Yankee’s supporters are quick to point out that Vernon is not in an earthquake or tsunami hot zone.

“Japan has absolutely changed the conversation but it’s still an evolving situation,” said Meredith Angwin, engineer and owner of Carnot Communications in Wilder.

Angwin manages the blog Yes Vermont Yankee and writes View From Vermont blog posts at the American Nuclear Society blog, ANS Nuclear Cafe with Howard Shaffer, a nuclear industry veteran from New Hampshire.

Angwin views the events in Japan as a learning experience. She advised people to step back and view the situation from the big picture — the fact that it took an 8.9 earthquake and tsunami to jeopardize the reactors.

“There’s no scenario on the Connecticut River that equals that,” she said.

Angwin said she didn’t want to give the impression that the reactors in Japan don’t present a problem, but that people in Vermont are responding as if Fukushima is proof that Vermont Yankee is dangerous.

She said that she’s “not trying to [speak] happy talk” but noted that there’s a difference between a whole country ravaged by a natural disaster, and an industrial accident.

In the coming years, the disaster in Japan will inform the nuclear industry’s safety standards, she said, pointing out one example: that plants will have to justify the placement of their backup generators.

Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, said that his constituents’ responses to the events in Japan have surprised him. He expected to receive frantic phone calls calling for Vermont Yankee’s immediate closure.

But most of the response has taken a positive track, he said, with people saying the fact Japan’s six troubled reactors survived the natural onslaught without complete and total meltdown proves they’re safe.

“I believe nuclear energy is a viable form of energy, but if it’s not safe, that’s the end of it,” said Hebert, who sits on the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.

He feels confident, however, that Entergy can still brand its reactor with the “safe, clean, and reliable” claim.

Hebert said he sees VY as a bridge to renewable energy — a source to keep Vermonters’ lights on until better, more reliable, forms of renewable technologies come along.

What are the odds?

“The industry can speak in low probability all they like, but I’m sure the Japanese felt the same way [before the earthquake],” said Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, and member of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.

“The point is that there are vulnerabilities with the Mark 1 [reactor containment] design.  We cannot plan for every possible circumstance, especially for one as old as Vermont Yankee. There are 23 Mark 1’s in the U.S. They should be taken offline. Some say they should have never been allowed to operate because of significant design flaws,” said Edwards.

“We’ve seen too many surprises with VY already,” she added, citing incidents such as a transformer fire, a collapsed cooling tower,  the ongoing tritium leaks, and unplanned releases of other radionuclides.

“We’re dealing with a plant that’s committed to delayed maintenance outside of environmental pressures,” Edwards said.

She said Japan raised awareness of the “lethal nature” of the plants.

Regardless of low probabilities or different causes for nuclear accidents, when something does go wrong with a nuclear plant, the risks to people are too high, she said.

In Edwards’ eyes, the nuclear industry is arrogant about the risks, and the Fukushima catastrophe should humble it.

Edwards feels the plant should be retired when its state Certificate of Public Good expires in March, 2012. She hopes people can focus on  decommissioning and removing from Vermont the tons of VY’s spent fuel that’s stored on site.

Peter Bradford, of Peru, Vt., a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member during the Carter administration, said it’s still too early to fully analyze and understand the events in Japan.

Bradford is now an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School teaching “Nuclear Power and Public Policy.” He has also sat on a state panel that reviewed Vermont Yankee’s reliability. He serves as Vice Chair of the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Bradford served as an NRC commissioner during Three Mile Island’s partial meltdown in 1979. He describes the U.S. fleet of 103 nuclear plants as “rickety,” and that people’s tolerance for the risk of nuclear energy is not “a one-size-fits-all.”

He cautions, however, that “it can’t happen here” is not the best attitude either. Engineers used to think tsunamis posed no threat, and then the catastrophe in Japan happened, he said. After Three Mile Island, the Soviet Union felt reassured that that particular reactor wasn’t in use in the country, and then Chernobyl happened.

“Accidents don’t repeat themselves precisely,” Bradford said.

But they do have certain things in common, said Tatiana Muchamedyarova, a Russian anti-nuclear activist who is in Vermont this week with her colleagues Natalia Manzurova, who worked as a lead engineer in cleaning up the consequences of the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl, and Dr. Nataliya Mironova, who founded the Movement for Nuclear Safety and was one of the first organizers to press for government openness on pre-Chernobyl nuclear catastrophes.

“We still don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste,” said Muchamedyarova. “The first big nuclear accident in Russia, in the 1950s, was when a storage tank filled with contaminated material exploded. I don’t know how or why we developed a technology that has no end.”

Manzurova is the only survivor of her 14-member team of “liquidators,” the people responsible for containing and cleaning up the contamination in Chernobyl. All the others have died of illnesses linked to the intense radiation exposure they received over the five years they worked, and she too is battling various health ailments.

“The nuclear industry is stressing that not that many people died at Chernobyl, but they don’t recognize the long-term effects and the traumas that have been passed down to the next generation,” she said. “They don’t see how the quality of life has changed for so many people.”

Manzurova said for the thousands that were evacuated from the area around Chernobyl, never to return to their former homes, life is divided in two — time before the accident, and after.

“Their previous lives have been wiped clean altogether,” she said.

The level of denial by both governments and the nuclear industry of the extent of radioactive contamination after Chernobyl and other nuclear incidents around the world is by design, Manzurova said.

“If they recognize that they have been victims, [governments and the industry] would have to recognize what created the victims,” she said. “If you talk to the nuclear industry, they are so sure they are on the right side and everything is okay.”

Mironova, who was in Vermont last fall as part of a Russian delegation examining the decommissioning process for U.S. nuclear plants, said that the Fukushima disaster has opened up a wide variety of unthinkable scenarios.

“You have a paralyzed government trying to deal with a natural disaster, a disaster that cuts across every sector of society,” she said. “And then you have to deal with a nuclear disaster on top of that. It is like a wartime situation in Japan, and the world needs to understand that.”

Mironova founded the Movement for Nuclear Safety and was one of the first organizers to press for government openness on pre-Chernobyl nuclear catastrophes in Russia.

“The nuclear establishment is the same in every country,” she said. “It supresses the truth.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #93 (Wednesday, March 23, 2011).

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