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Voices / Viewpoint

We'll still be here

We’ve waited seven years for a decision, and it comes on the anniversary of a nuclear meltdown

Leslie Sullivan Sachs serves as project manager of the antinuclear Safe and Green Campaign.

Brattleboro

Recently, we visited Dartmouth College for a symposium on the 35th anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown, an event held where the business school and engineering schools meet, deep in the pristine Ivy League campus.

While I learned a lot, the ivory-tower atmosphere, the fact that all the speakers were white males, and the positive spin that all but a few of the presenters put on the past, present, and future of nuclear power made me feel as if I had dropped into a parallel universe — one quite different from ours of leaky old reactors and evacuation zones.

The upper-echelon regulators, engineers, and nuclear-industry VIPs established their pedigree with jokes about Dartmouth versus Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. Nuclear waste and decommissioning are apparently taboo topics.

When an activist asked what to do with the waste, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy hemmed, hawed, and said that was not his area of expertise, but noted that the current plan is to find communities which will consent to hosting radioactive-waste sites.

Finally, Vermont’s Rep. Peter Welch delivered a dose of reality.

To paraphrase his substance and tone: There’s no more money for you guys. You get more federal money than any other power source. Unlike other industries, taxpayers are burdened with all the risk for building new nukes and take on all the financial and safety risks for your failures. I listen to my constituents, and they are against you. In Washington, even the Tea Party now questions your relevance.

That’s when my phone started pulsing. The Public Service Board (PSB) had released its decision on the Certificate of Public Good (CPG) for Vermont Yankee.

I was struck by the irony: We wait seven years for a decision, and it comes on the anniversary of a nuclear meltdown.

* * *

Huddled over our iPhones in the hall, no one was surprised at the PSB’s ruling, which allows Vermont Yankee to operate through the end of this year. The state did its best to get a good deal for Vermont, but Entergy held all the cards and all the money.

What was surprising is how loathe the Public Service Board was to grant Entergy “fair partner” status, as has been widely reported in the press.

A lot of space in the 98-page order details the evidence that Entergy is not trustworthy. Despite the company’s repugnance, the PSB concluded that if it denied a CPG for 2014, Entergy still would need “to wind down activities and sell its assets. Effectively, this means that the VY Station might still operate through the end of 2014 even if the CPG was denied.”

Left stranded is Yankee’s Clean Water Act permit, which has languished in Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources for eight years. The state still has to work to do, creating a site restoration plan and considering Entergy’s plans for new dry-cask storage. Both will need careful study.

We will all heave a huge sigh of relief once the 900-plus tons of spent fuel are moved into dry-cask storage. In our haste to see that mission accomplished, let’s not forget that the high-level radioactive waste might well be sitting here permanently.

The last batch of dry casks to Yankee missed an inspection step. Entergy’s choice, Holtec International Hi-Storm 100 dry casks, have well-documented flaws.

Will they work with the latest high-burn-up fuel Yankee has probably been using?

Will we be able move the casks if, by some miracle, a better storage solution is invented someday?

* * *

Entergy will write its own decommissioning plan, based on the company’s own survey of conditions at the site. Then Vermont will clean up to its own standards. Realistically, this work won’t begin for a decade or more.

So what about the next eight months?

Will Entergy continue its pattern of deferring maintenance to cut costs, hiding mishaps at the reactor, and putting out corporate spin when word gets out? Will its leaders lawyer up to avoid pesky regulations and to weasel out of prior agreements?

The nuclear industry is pushing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to loosen its already-lax decommissioning guidelines. For instance, the industry wants the NRC to let companies off the hook for any evacuation-zone planning beyond plant boundaries once a reactor is no longer producing electricity — even before its reactor is decommissioned, and even if the spent-fuel pool is still full.

The nuclear owners want to be released from any responsibility for dealing with us — including the kids at Vernon Elementary School, across the street from Vermont Yankee.

What could possibly go wrong while 900 tons of spent radioactive fuel is moved out of the pool and into dry casks over the next seven years while Entergy dismantles the reactor building, cooling towers, and outbuildings? While the company uncovers toxic waste buried from when the reactor was built, back before the Environmental Protection Agency regulated arsenic and lead?

We have all seen the horrific reports in the news of train derailments and truck accidents spilling waste and chemicals, turning neighborhoods into sacrifice zones. Remember when workers were moving spent fuel and fuel rods dropped to within inches of the concrete due to a malfunctioning crane? What could go wrong as they move low-level and other highly toxic wastes from Vermont to Texas?

* * *

Back at the Dartmouth symposium, the keynote speaker for the “Future of Nuclear Power” was introduced as a dropout of Harvard and Oxford and on Time’s list of the top 100 influential people in the world.

“Nuclear power is dead,” began Amory Lovins. He compared “the cost, climate-protection potential, reliability, financial risk, market success, deployment speed, and energy contribution of new nuclear power with those of its low- or no-carbon competitors.”

Nuclear power is too inflexible to use as base-load power, and there are a lot of cheaper, quicker sources of carbon-free power. His conclusion: “Isn’t it time we forgot about nuclear power? Informed capitalists have.”

I sure wish we could forget Vermont Yankee. With a Certificate of Public Good in hand, Entergy hopes we’ll forgive, forget, and move on. But the company needs more than a piece of paper to earn our trust. We will stay vigilant and continue to educate ourselves as many tough decisions lie ahead.

A community advisory panel, which includes educated citizen watchdogs, engaged from planning for shutdown through the end of site restoration, would be a start.

Those in ivory towers, engineering labs, and corporate offices do not live with the consequences of their decisions.

We do.

Our voices deserve to be heard.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #249 (Wednesday, April 9, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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