Our nuclear spring

Our nuclear spring

March has brought heightened attention to the nuclear issue with the anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe and the end of the first 40 years of Vermont Yankee

BRATTLEBORO — As we pass the first anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy and we approach March 21 - the expiration date of the original 40-year license of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission - the nuclear debate in Windham County and environs will generate some additional heat. Would that we could harness that for Vermont's energy future.

In paid advertising in local media (including this newspaper), Entergy itself is noting both milestones in an ad that presents the text of a letter from the company's chief executive officer, J. Wayne Leonard, who seeks to reassure those of us who live and work in the shadow of the plant that the company is continuously seeking to improve its operations and safety in the aftermath of last year's nuclear catastrophe in Japan.

The implication is that the plant is protected from that same confluence of events, that there is nothing for us to worry about.

And yes, perhaps the plant can withstand an earthquake and a tidal wave on the Connecticut River for all the reasons that Leonard cites. Now that Fukushima has happened, plants would be criminally negligent not to add these additional factors to scenarios that can be predicted.

But in his note of reassurance, Leonard fails to address other risks of that confluence of random events, events so obscure that nobody prepares for them, that nobody plans for them, that nobody imagines them.

They might include the combination of this era's freaky weather with an obscure bolt that has rusted just so. They might come in the form of the wrong crack in the wrong part in the wrong place at the wrong time. They might emerge as a system that has redundancies for its redundancies, in combination with an ice storm and power failure and other unforeseen mechanical failures.

No complex series of interconnected and interdependent systems is exempt from the unknown. None. And as long as human beings are running the place, there is always the possibility for human error. Always.

Astronauts never entered a space shuttle envisioning that they would die on reentry because of damaged thermal tiles. Pilots never boarded an aircraft anticipating that it would crash in the Everglades because a subcontractor put a wrong box in the luggage compartment. Nuclear professionals in Japan didn't anticipate the loss of power to keep those critical pumps going.

Of course, our individual lives are filled with similar scenarios of calculated risk. We might unexpectedly meet our end driving on Interstate 91 or crossing Western Avenue in Brattleboro. But even meteorological catastrophes like the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene, as devastating and costly as they are, pale in comparison to the aftermath and consequences of a catastrophe at Vermont Yankee.

The supporters of and from the nuclear industry respond too often to citizen critics and watchdogs with a sneeringly derisive mixture of professional pride and dismissive arrogance. Critics are dismissed as dirty hippies and ignorant NIMBYs. Investigative reports about nuclear plant vulnerabilities and dangers are dismissed out of hand as “biased.”

Put in the context of consequences that are horrifyingly dire, such attitudes are reckless and closed-minded and need to change as we move into the next chapter of the VY saga.

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In this week's ad, Leonard makes a not-so-subtle jab at the media in his reference to the facts “you don't often hear or read about.” Perhaps the implication is that we in the media have missed the real story, that we habitually accentuate the negative and minimize the very positive efforts that plant employees make to improve nuclear safety.

The media can be forgiven for focusing on the larger story that Entergy as a corporate citizen has engaged in a long game of smarmy and disrespectful behavior that has overshadowed any positive measures that it has taken with regard to Vermont Yankee.

Two short years ago, company officials lied under oath and derailed a legislatively mandated audit from examining the underground pipes that were later found to be the source of the tritium leak.

A 2010 supplemental report to the state Public Oversight Panel for the plant described an “organization-wide breakdown” that allowed “personnel to perpetuate misstatements for 12months.” The three panel members attributed the breakdown to “cultural norms” in the VY operation.

“The systemic nature of the failures to communicate accurately in important forums and the sheer number of persons involved amplifies the Panel's earlier concern that there is a lack of a questioning attitude within [Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee's] organization and corporate structure,” the panel said.

The company lost the confidence of its biggest supporter, former Gov. Jim Douglas, and ultimately, the Legislature.

Entergy's corporate arrogance and incompetence should have been grounds enough to have closed the plant then and there. Yet, it kept going.

And last year, Entergy filed its lawsuit.

It might well have been within its rights - and fulfilling the obligations of this society's twisted corporate responsibilities - to pursue this strategy, but the company certainly has proved that it will pull out all the stops to avoid doing anything that is not in its financial best interests. Interestingly, Entergy has argued that the state breached contractual law by passing additional legislative hurdles toward a renewed Certificate of Public Good. That point alone makes it abundantly clear that the company considers the state a corporate equal with which it is negotiating, not an entity to which it is accountable in any manner.

Meanwhile, the company has persistently spread its intellectually dubious “safe, clean, reliable” mantra in its advertising. The nuclear waste that can damage the environment for generations? That's not clean. A plant whose cooling towers rot and collapse and whose transformer bursts into flames because of poor maintenance? That's not reliable. And even if we accept the pro-nuclear trope that there's more radiological danger from a banana than from the tritium that's leached into the environment from Vermont Yankee from pipes that supposedly didn't exist, we have only this company's persistent word that the plant is safe, backed by rubber-stamp robo-policy from the NRC, a federal entity whose work starts from the premise that nuclear power is safe and that commercial licensees are to be trusted.

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We can all agree on some basics, no matter how we feel about nuclear power, no matter how we feel about this plant.

First, we put our safety in the hands of good, talented, professional people on the front lines every day, as evidenced by the fact that 40 years after VY generated its first megawatt, we are still here. VY employees' competence and training - the qualities that make the jobs at stake so valuable and high-paying - is literally a matter of life or death. That is not unappreciated or unnoticed as long as that plant is operating, but it too often goes without saying.

It is more than understandable that people whose jobs are at stake would have a less-than-positive opinion of those who do not agree that the plant should continue operating. It is difficult to convey concurrent thoughts of appreciation for one's work while concurrently trying to eliminate one's job. Antinuclear advocates need to continue the belated but emerging conversation about the post-VY future in the county and do so in a way that embraces the financial and psychological realities of a post-Vermont Yankee economy and its very real effect on the regional economy.

Finally, in the days and weeks to come, this issue will take on a new intensity. Anti-VY forces are planning gestures both symbolic (evacuation walks) and subversive (civil disobedience actions). On Thursday, March 15, the Vernon Selectboard, School Board, Principal, Police Department, Highway Department, Fire Department, Emergency Management, and Emergency Services will meet with residents “to outline what steps are being taken to keep the disruption to [their] daily lives as minimal as possible.”

Few other issues have polarized a community so effectively and for so long, and it bears remembering that we are, in fact, a community with some fundamental and obvious common interests at stake even if we do not agree on this issue. As fractured and difficult as this debate has been, intensifying it can make it worse, on so many levels, in so many ways.

It is bad enough that we have safety risks from nuclear power. It would be even more of a tragedy if anyone was hurt in the service of protesting or defending nuclear power in general or the interests of this plant in particular.

We owe it to ourselves to keep the argument civil and respectful. As we move toward March 21, may we continue to disagree vigorously, honestly, safely, and with integrity.

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