VERNON—As steam billowed from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant’s cooling towers against a blue afternoon sky, anti-nuclear protesters gathered on the water in a colorful assortment of boats and along an outcropping of rocks higher on the shore.
On the minds of those participating last Saturday was Entergy, VY’s owner, and its use of the Connecticut River to cool its reactor.
The company discharges the resulting heated water into the river. Opponents say this higher temperature water poses a threat to aquatic life and habitat.
According to a press release from the protest’s organizing group, the SAGE Alliance, “where the reactor discharges [water], shad have decreased by 99 percent since the 1990s. The effects of this heated plume extend up to 55 miles downriver to Holyoke, Mass.”
“It’s so important you came out today,” Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network told other participants. “It’s unconscionable that this corporation uses it [the river] as a sewer pipe.”
Referencing Entergy’s lawsuit against the state’s standing to regulate the plant, Katz said, “There is no reason to give the corporation a free ride ever again.”
Entergy’s 2011 lawsuit against the state of Vermont is currently in appeal. The company filed a second suit against the state in U.S. District Court last week. The new lawsuit takes issue with taxes that affect the plant.
It’s cheaper to discharge water into the river than funnel it through cooling towers, said Katz, adding that the plant was using its cooling towers rather than discharging water into the river on this day because the Connecticut River was too low and too hot to use.
A new permit
State Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, who works as a river steward with the Connecticut River Watershed Council and as a professional fishing guide, took the mic.
“This is your river,” he told the crowd.
Deen said that the state of Vermont has “cherry picked” the scientific information about the hot water that VY drains into the river, a form of discharge commonly called thermal pollution.
VY has a Mark 1 boiling water reactor (BWR). River water is cycled through the plant to cool the reactor and generate steam to power the generator. The heated water is either deposited back into the river or discharged through the cooling towers.
Data on the hot-water plume is collected only as far downstream as the Vernon dam, said Deen.
Also, he said, when determining safe upper temperature levels for fish, those analyzing the data have considered only species that prefer warmer waters rather than those seeking cooler temperatures for migrating or spawning, like shad.
Finally, he said, the permit allows the use of a mathematical formula to predict the water’s temperature as an adequate substitute for tracking water temperature with a thermometer, said Deen.
On its website, the CRWC writes that “for nearly two decades before, the Vernon nuclear plant had been permitted to raise the river’s temperature up to 13 degrees during winter months and up to 5 degrees in the summer and fall.”
There’s no guarantee that a new permit will stop Entergy from dumping hot water into the river, Deen said.
The CRWC released a report in August that reviewed the plant’s thermal discharge permit requirements and analyzed the river’s water temperature and flow.
Referencing graphs from CRWC’s report which were prepared by Hydro Analysis in Acton, Mass., Deen pointed out that the downstream temperatures often rose above those allowed by the permit.
One way to avoid the thermal discharge, said Deen, is for VY to switch to using its cooling towers.
The plant receives its thermal discharge permit from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR). The permit regulates the conditions under which the plant can deposit heated water into the Connecticut River, conditions like the river’s ambient temperature and fish spawning cycles.
The states issue discharge permits and they don’t conflict with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s authority to regulate nuclear safety.
Deen described VY’s permit, which expired in 2006, as a “zombie permit.” Entergy operates under the expired permit’s terms, he said.
The CRWC has petitioned the ANR for a closed-cycle permit, which would ensure VY has to use the cooling towers at all times.
No entity has successfully challenged the expired permit since 2006, said Deen, but “[o]ur knowledge base has significantly expanded since then.”
The science and data has not received a thorough evaluation since 2001, Deen said, urging people to contact ANR and the governor’s office and ask they issue a new thermal discharge permit.
There’s “not a lot of rigorous data,” said Deen of the information available on the effect of thermal pollution in the river.
Deen said one of the challenges to developing strong science on thermal pollution is that no one at the state level specializes in the field. ANR, however, now has the ability to bill utilities if the state needs to hire an expert.
Entergy’s 2011 lawsuit has the state scared, said Deen.
“Let’s fight this out if we’re going to,” Deen said. He said he hoped the CRWC’s report would arm the state with information.
Although the state’s attitude toward a new permit has shifted toward receptive since the pro-Vermont Yankee Douglas administration, said Deen, he’s still waiting for the “proof in the pudding.”
Building on what the government did right
Christian Parenti, a contributing editor for The Nation and author of Tropic of Chaos, a book that details the destabilizing effects of global warming around the world, also spoke to the crowd.
He said some “greens” have embraced atomic power as a method to halt climate change.
The problem, Parenti said, is that the science of climate change indicates that there isn’t time to build out the “atomic infrastructure” required to replace fossil fuels.
According to him, atomic plants cost $9 to $19 billion to construct and none have come online within budget or on time. Also, although the federal government guarantees 80 percent of the risk associated with atomic plants, Wall Street won’t touch the remaining 20 percent.
“The dollars, cents, and timeline don’t line up,” Parenti said. “We have to get off fossil fuels.”
Referencing information from NASA and climate change scientists, Parenti said that the earth has surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists previously warned that when the earth’s atmosphere passed the 350 ppm “tipping point,” global warming would shift into a “self-fueling” cycle.
According to Parenti, this country has the financial, technical, and legal framework, through the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, to replace coal and oil plants with green technologies.
“Government is not the problem,” said Parenti of switching from fossil fuels to green technologies. Instead, he suggested the Left could better “embrace” the potential use of government in dealing with climate change.
The federal government represents a “huge consumer of electricity,” said Parenti. If the government takes actions like retrofitting its buildings, purchasing green power, or switching to electric vehicles, it can “jump start” the general green market.
Calling a grand atomic future “a myth,” Parenti said that instead of new, better atomic plants, the country will continue on with its “old zombie fleet.”
“Rickety old plants [like VY] are very dangerous in how we adapt to climate change,” he said.
In a separate interview, Parenti said the safety culture at old nuclear plants is key to mitigating potential disasters.
Charging that Entergy has a reputation for being a company that is “sloppy” and “cuts corners,” Parenti said he hasn’t seen any indication that VY’s corporate parent takes its safety culture seriously. This is asking for a disaster, he said.
Parenti also said that climate change scientists predict an increase in extreme weather like 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene, from which some Vermonters are still recovering.
Still, Irene has provided opportunities to pinpoint where the role of federal and state government benefited citizens and evaluate what worked in the response to the disaster.
Parenti said he visited New Orleans three days after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The experience brought home the effect of years of the War on Drugs, and its associated funding, had on local government. In place of a surplus of food or clothing, local governments possessed a surplus of guns, he said.
Remaining resilient in the face of disasters requires a strong civil sector, Parenti said. Instead of “hating on teachers,” society can and should build out public infrastructure such as health care and schools, and foster greater community involvement in public decision making.