Never say never when it comes to nuclear safety

There won't be a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and a tsunami in Vernon anytime soon.

It's unlikely that we will see a nuclear disaster at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on the scale of what we're seeing in at the Fukushima Daiichi complex in Japan.

But earthquakes aren't as big a threat as more prosaic disasters, such as floods and hurricanes.

Seventy-five years ago this month, massive flooding took place on the Connecticut River. The combination of the abnormally snowy winter of 1935-1936, along with an abnormally heavy amount of rain in March of 1936, created an epic disaster.

Fast-moving water laden with huge ice chunks swept over the Vernon Dam, taking with it highway and railroad bridges in the Connecticut River Valley. More than 150 people died, and over 430,000 people were left homeless. The flood left nearly $300 million (in 1936 dollars) of damage in New England.

The region had barely recovered from that disaster when the Great New England Hurricane of September 1938 swept up the valley. With hurricane-force winds felt as far north as Windham County, more than 600 people died, nearly 9,000 homes and buildings were destroyed, and about 15,000 more structures were damaged. Before and after the storm, up to 17 inches of rain fell and caused flooding equal to - or, in some cases, worse than - the 1936 disaster.

Between the various flood-control dams that have been built on the Connecticut and its tributaries since these two disasters, and improved weather forecasting, we have not seen in Vermont a flood as massive as that of 1936 or a hurricane as destructive as the 1938 storm.

But we have had floods and hurricanes regularly in the region since then, and both have toppled power lines and disrupted transportation routes.

This factor is important because it wasn't the earthquake that damaged the Fukushima reactors. It was the failure of the backup systems designed to kick in after power was disrupted.

After the earthquake, the diesel generators designed to provide electricity to run the cooling system were swamped by the tsunami. The battery-powered electric system designed to back up the diesel generators was also inadequate.

These sorts of backups are in place at Vermont Yankee, as is as a tie-in to the Vernon Dam. But even this level of redundancy was not enough at Fukushima. All it took was the improbable combination of events to create a catastrophe with worldwide environmental and economic implications.

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Much has been made, and rightly so, of the fact that Vermont Yankee has the same General Electric Mark I containment system as the Fukushima reactors.

It is disturbing to think that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) knew as far back as the early 1970s that the GE design was so flawed that there was a virtually certain probability of meltdown in the event of failure. Yet the NRC licensed, and has continued to relicense, these reactors without a second thought.

That's why we have little faith in the NRC's assessment that Vermont Yankee is good to go for another 20 years of operation.

In fact, there is no reason to believe that extending Vermont Yankee's operating license was a decision based on safety, reliability, or the public interest.

Despite the reassurances of Entergy and the NRC, this nearly 40-year-old nuclear plant has serious design flaws - flaws that regulators have known about for decades, flaws that could create an emergency beyond the control of a well-trained, professional staff running the plant.

The reactor design at Vermont Yankee been grandfathered; numerous experts have asserted that the plant would not meet today's more stringent standards for safety. If Vermont Yankee's design isn't good enough for a new plant, why should it be permitted to operate in any other context?

The disaster in Japan has prompted other countries to take a hard look at their nuclear power programs and whether they are truly safe. Germany, in so doing, has temporarily shut seven of its oldest reactors.

The United States needs to do likewise, especially for the 23 nuclear reactors, including Vermont Yankee, that share a design that failed under the proverbial worst-case scenario.

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