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Voices / Viewpoint

Three years later

With VY closing in 2014, won’t our troubles soon be over? Hardly.

Leslie Sullivan Sachs is project manager of the Safe and Green Campaign. To commemorate the second anniversary of the Fukushima tragedy, the campaign will host “Voices of Fukushima 2014,” an evening of short documentaries on Fukushima, followed by a discussion with Chiho Kaneko about her recent visit to the Fukushima region, on Tuesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., in the Community Room of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Admission is free.

Brattleboro

An anniversary marks the day an event took place — the birth of our nation on July 4, for instance. March 11 marks the day when two natural disasters struck Japan.

On that day in 2011, an earthquake followed by a tsunami devastated the coast, displacing 154,000 people and killing 18,000. That was the first disaster.

On March 11, we also commemorate the beginning of a man-made permanent crisis for the entire planet: the meltdown of multiple nuclear reactors in Japan.

Last year, the Safe and Green Campaign organized the first Voices of Fukushima. People in seven towns around Vermont Yankee adopted seven respective towns in Japan. In Brattleboro, we studied what life is like for the 21,000 residents evacuated from the town of Namie, five miles from the nuclear reactors.

Since that time, the number of former Namie residents who have died from suicide, stress, or poor living conditions surpassed the number who died from the tsunami and earthquake.

Thousands are living in densely packed, small, prefabricated living units and will never go home again. Evacuees fear that attention and resources will be taken away from decontaminating Fukushima to fund new construction for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Japan’s new prime minister is determined to restart Japan’s 50 idle nuclear reactors, which will divert trained workers and money from Fukushima.

No one knows what is going on inside the reactor cores. Frequent earthquakes endanger the damaged spent-fuel pools, which are a mess of hundreds of tons of debris and fuel rods. The 1,000 tanks of radioactive water on site are leaking hundreds of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean and into the groundwater.

* * *

Why does any of this matter to us? After all, Vermont Yankee — the same make, model, and age as Fukushima’s reactors — is closing at the end of this year, so won’t our troubles soon be over?

It matters because there is still much more spent fuel in Vernon than at all the Fukushima reactors combined. This fuel is still incredibly “hot,” still incredibly dangerous, and still virtually unprotected.

It matters because “one bad accident” created by some form of extreme energy — nuclear, tar sands, crude oil — happens almost daily in North America.

There is a headline, then maybe two or three days of news, before a fresh disaster grabs our attention. But “one bad accident” doesn’t just ruin someone’s day; it is a permanent crisis for those who lose their homes, culture, and community.

Just as we haven’t heard about the families from Namie, we don’t hear about the families in rural towns decimated by the coal ash spill in West Virginia, or about the victims of fracking explosions and spills in Illinois, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, or Kentucky.

What has happened to the families of Mayflower, Ark., where a pipeline carrying tar sands erupted?

Do we hear about the residents of Aliceville, Ala., where 750,000 gallons of crude oil spilled from a 90-car train, setting off explosions? Or of our Canadian neighbors in Lac-Mégantic, Québec, where 47 people died when an oil train derailed?

* * *

Ten years ago, the United States averaged two railroad accidents a year which spilled crude oil; in 2013, 88 accidents occurred. By some reports, there are 70 gas pipeline leaks a day.

In the nuclear industry, accidents and spills are invisible — they happen in the form of radiation released into water, land, and air.

Consider the tragedy of the poor, rural town of Barnwell, S.C. For over a decade, rain has washed low-level nuclear waste stored in open, unlined trenches. Tritium has now leaked off-site, going into the groundwater and into a spring-fed tributary heading to the Savannah River.

U.S. taxpayers fund the high-level nuclear waste dump in Hanford, Wash., to a tune of $2 billion per year. But all that money has not kept the holding tanks there from leaking into the groundwater of rural communities on the banks of the mighty Columbia River.

So now nuclear waste travels 1,800 miles from Hanford to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in rural New Mexico. Towns and Indian reservations along these routes live in fear that an accident could wipe out their communities.

Built to store nuclear waste underground in salt mines, WIPP could never leak, or so said the Department of Energy (DOE).

After just 16 years, the casks used to store the waste at WIPP have apparently failed. Thirteen workers tested positive for internal radiation. Last week, the DOE announced that radiation has been detected in the air — a huge admission for an agency known to keep facts from the public.

The DOE has no plan B for what to do with the waste at Barnwell, or Hanford, or New Mexico.

* * *

Back here, in Vernon, we host tons and tons of spent fuel sitting in a pool of water over a reactor on the banks of the Connecticut River. We’ll be safer when the waste is put in dry casks, once Entergy gets around to it. Then it will be under the “stewardship” of the DOE, which has no plan B for our waste, either.

Will one bad day doom our citizens to become forgotten victims, like those of Namie, Iitate, Kawauchi, Okuma, Futaba, and Tomioka, Japan?

We cannot ignore the consequences of failed energy policies and systemic lack of oversight. We must become vigilant watchdogs of our own nuclear waste graveyard, work to find solutions, and promote clean and safe energy policies.

We can also celebrate. We are making progress in moving beyond nuclear power and fossil fuel. Putney’s second community solar project kicked off this week, and one of Vermont’s largest solar arrays will be built in Brattleboro this year.

As the saying goes: whenever there‘s a solar spill, it’s called a nice day.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #244 (Wednesday, March 5, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.

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