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Who wins on March 21?

The power uprate meant millions in safety upgrades for Vermont Yankee

Meredith Joan Angwin is a physical chemist by training, with many years experience in the utility industry. She directs the Energy Education Project of the Ethan Allen Institute, and writes the Yes Vermont Yankee blog.

Wilder

When Vermont Yankee was built, its 40-year Nuclear Regulatory Commission license was standard for new plants at that time. Although a new 20-year license was granted last year, the original license expires Wednesday.

That day has become a rallying cry for plant opponents, who insist Yankee must be “shut down safely.”

Many opponents speak as if it will be a personal defeat if the plant operates for a day past March 21. They don’t actually claim that on the 22nd, the plant will have safety problems that it didn’t have on the 21st. Instead, whether the plant operates past the 21st has become a matter of “who wins, me or them?”

Safety is essential. To discredit Vermont Yankee, opponents make three standard safety-related claims. I will answer these claims with facts, not win-lose rhetorical statements. The claims are:

• Vermont Yankee is an old plant.

• It could have an accident like Fukushima in Japan.

• It puts nuclear waste on the banks of the Connecticut River.

* * *

Age and Vermont Yankee: Vermont Yankee is a steam-electric plant. It heats water to raise steam to turn turbines and make electricity. Coal plants also are steam-electric plants.

Requirements for maintaining plant integrity are similar for nuclear and for coal. The median age of operating coal plants in this country is 46 years, and 30 coal plants have been running for more than 60 years.

I was a corrosion specialist in my working life. There are corrosion issues special to nuclear plants, and there are corrosion issues special to coal plants.

These problems are different, but one is not worse than the other. If anything, coal plants have the harder time with corrosion, scaling, and other operating problems, because they have to move so much material — coal — through the facility.

The power uprate made several years ago helps contribute to Vermont Yankee’s reliability and safety. Opponents imagine that the power uprate is merely a matter of pushing an old plant too hard.

Actually, the NRC only grants uprates when significant improvements have been made to a plant. At Vermont Yankee, Entergy in the past decade has installed $400 million worth of new equipment. Much of this equipment was required for the power uprate.

In the nuclear industry, it is conventional wisdom that a power uprate is a good way to prepare for a license-extension review. The plant replaces key equipment for the uprate, and the new equipment helps the plant achieve its license extension.

* * *

Could VY have an accident like Fukushima Daiichi?

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. Schools collapsed, villages were swept out to sea, and an estimated 20,000 people were killed.

Five nuclear stations containing 15 reactors were affected by the tsunami. All the reactors survived the earthquake, but transmission lines failed, and diesel generators were flooded.

At one site, three reactors lost power for too long, resulting in fuel damage, hydrogen explosions, and radiation release. In accordance with emergency plans, population evacuations began almost immediately.

Japan is an industrial powerhouse and technically astute country. The question arises: Could it happen here?

Shortly after Fukushima, a prominent anti-nuclear activist worried that a meltdown could happen to Vermont Yankee if a big hurricane came to the Connecticut River Valley.

A few months later, Tropical Storm Irene flooded whole towns and washed out roads. Vermont Yankee still made power at full capacity.

Nuclear plants are among the sturdiest structures on the planet. Vermont Yankee is designed for a 500-year flood, 360 mph tornado winds, and severe earthquakes. Worldwide, plants have operated through hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes, as well as through earthquakes.

To operate safely, a nuclear plant needs adequate cooling water and electricity. Vermont Yankee has resilient cooling systems, appropriate for its site. The plant draws water from Vernon Pond and also stores millions of gallons on site.

The plant has several types of electrical backups. Its diesel generators are above the 500-year flood level, and it also has a direct power line to Vernon Dam. River water can be pumped directly into the reactor, if necessary.

Vermont Yankee is well-engineered for its location.

* * *

The storage of spent nuclear fuel is another hot button for nuclear opponents. They delight in saying how some of this material has a half-life of thousands, millions, or billions of years. They speak of the half-life in terms that imply it is terrifying that something will be radioactive for so long.

Actually, as a general rule, the longer the half-life, the less dangerous the material.

Let’s look at what a long half-life means. Say I had 100 atoms of an isotope with a 10-minute half-life. By the definition of half-life, 50 of those atoms would release radioactivity in a 10-minute period. That would be a comparatively high radioactivity release in a short time.

Now imagine I have 100 atoms of an isotope with a 10 year half-life. Again by the definition of half-life, 50 atoms would release radioactivity during a period of 10 years. In other words, every few months, one atom would release some radioactivity, and a few months later, another atom would. The isotope with a 10-year half-life is far less radioactive than the isotope with the 10-minute half-life.

The low radiation level of long-half-life elements is the reason we can walk in the hills, despite the presence of radioactive elements in the native rocks. These elements have long half-lives. An isotope with a million-year half-life is not a very radioactive isotope.

In the near term, the dry casks can hold spent fuel in great safety for hundreds of years. In the long term, “radioactive for millions of years” is a scary sound bite, but it does not indicate high levels of danger, now or in the future.

* * *

When Vermont Yankee operates this Thursday, some plant opponents will feel they have “lost.”

The plant, however, will operate as safely as it had Wednesday.

Plant opponents might feel that they have lost, but Vermont will have won a future of abundant power and jobs in the southern part of the state.

Safely.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #144 (Wednesday, March 21, 2012).

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