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Leaking Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shutdown ordered as Obama pledges $50 billion for nuclear power

February 25, 2010

by Bob Nichols

Nuclear power opponents from at least three states converged in Brattleboro, Vermont, for a rally Sunday, Feb. 21, calling for Vermont Yankee to stop operating immediately until the source of radioactive tritium leaking from the plant is found. Their call for a permanent shut down when the plant’s license expires in 2012 was echoed Wednesday by a 26-4 vote in the Vermont Senate. – Photo: Susan Keese
In the depths of a near-Depression, the Vermont Senate on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly for health and safety over jobs and tax revenue when it chose not to renew Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant’s operating license when it expires in 2012. Unless Entergy, the plant’s owner, can stop the leaks of radioactive tritium, the 26-4 vote means the plant will shut down in March 2012, taking 650 jobs and $9 million in tax revenue with it.

Vermont Yankee is a 38-year-old decaying nuclear reactor running flat out at 120 percent of capacity in Vernon, Vermont. It is about 30 miles north of Mount Holyoke College. A few miles further south are Amherst College and hundreds of other colleges and prep schools.

Millions of people are within its range. Should Vermont Yankee lose enough coolant to expose the glowing uranium core to air, it catches on fire and the hydrogen gas manufactured normally in the reactor explodes.

Vermont Yankee is sitting on top of its own outhouse-toilet-in-the-woods, a 100m by 50m by 9m (m = meter, or about 39 inches) underground “lake” of highly radioactive reactor coolant vigorously pumped there by Vermont Yankee itself already.

This poisonous lake is about the size of a football field and 35 feet deep – maybe even bigger, according to Arnie Gunderson, a former nuclear engineer, nuclear company executive and nuclear consultant to the Vermont Senate.

What’s more, the approximately 1,900 thermal megawatt reactor will supply as much power as is necessary to pump ever more scalding hot radioactive coolant to the football field sized underground lake.

As is usual, an obliging and well paid Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sees nothing unusual in the overall situation. The NRC is a federal agency in Washington, D.C., far removed from the woods of New England.

The NRC has officially placed 27 of America’s 104 big nuclear hot water heaters in the leak reactor coolant category, though it is known that all nuclear reactors are designed to leak even when operating normally.

All 11 big nuclear reactors in the D.C.-Chesapeake Bay area are leaking reactor coolant. East Coast writer Cathy Garger exposed this D.C. area scandal – not the laid back and easy going national anti-nuke groups like Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), Beyond Nuclear or any of the many others in the 17 million person greater D.C. metro Chesapeake Bay Area.

The 2007 collapse of a Vermont Yankee cooling tower convinced many residents to become anti-nuclear activists. Now they’re celebrating the impending shutdown of Vermont’s only nuclear power plant.
It is unknown at this stage if all the Vermont Yankee reactor coolant will gush out into the underground reactor coolant lake or not. According to ABC News, two environmental organizations, Conservation Law Foundation and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, have “asked the U.S. Justice Department to launch a criminal probe of Vermont Yankee nuclear plant officials, saying they had provided false information under oath and operated the plant with ‘careless disregard’ of the potential for leaking radioactive substances.”

On Jan. 7, Vermont Yankee officials announced that the plant was leaking tritium into the groundwater and the following week it was revealed that they had lied to state regulators and lawmakers – under oath – “by saying the plant did not have the sort of underground piping that could carry tritium,” ABC News reported. State Attorney General William Sorrell has launched a criminal fraud investigation.

Ironically, Vermont Yankee’s threat to human health and the environment and its owner’s attempted coverup made news at the same time President Obama took note of the fine job America’s nuclear reactors are doing by approving the all necessary loan guarantees to a Southern company to build two more big reactors in Georgia to heat water for electricity.

The NRC is expected to play ball and approve the reactor applications for unapproved reactor designs. Loan guarantees are necessary since Wall Street and private bankers refuse to fund the big reactors. Obama says he’s willing to approve loan guarantees in excess of $50 billion to fund nuclear power.

Notes

1. “Senate Votes to Close VT Yankee,” VPIRG, Feb. 23, 2010.

2. “Nuclear power plants and other large nuclear facilities in the United States” by Ace Hoffman of Animated Software, San Deigo.

3. “Another DC Area Stand Down – As Radioactive Groundwater Due to Hit Chesapeake Bay” by Cathy Garger, Axis of Logic, Jan. 3, 2010.

Bob Nichols is a Project Censored Award winner and correspondent for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. Nichols reports on the two nuclear weapons laboratories in the Bay Area, war and nuclear topics. He can be reached at duweapons@gmail.com.

12 thoughts on “Leaking Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shutdown ordered as Obama pledges $50 billion for nuclear power

  1. Finrod

    This article is a half-baked swill of misrepresentations, misleading half-truths and outright lies, the only possible purpose of which can be to terrify uninformed people to tow the party line. The author of this article should be thoroughly ashamed of himself. He deserves nothing but scorn. In a sane society he would be made to pay for this revolting scaremongering.

    Reply
  2. Rod Adams

    Vermont Yankee is operating at its designed power output – long before it was built, the engineers assumed that it would eventually produce 620 MW of electricity.

    http://bit.ly/dnwAmn

    Even Arnie Gundersen does not describe the source of the tritium in ground water as coming from reactor coolant – he has determined that the most likely source is a system called the “off gas” system, which removes entrained air and other non condensible gases from the condenser. There is no coolant leak and no risk to the public – a person exlusively drinking water at the highest levels measured in the ground water directly under the plant for an entire year would receive an annual dose of about 16 millirem – compared to normal background radiation doses in the US of about 350 millirem. http://bit.ly/bKaDVV

    Finally, shutting down Vermont Yankee would inevitably lead to burning more methane and/or coal in plants that dump thousands of TONS of dangerous waste products into the atmosphere every single day through system design features called smokestacks.

    Reply
  3. Jason

    Wow, where to even begin with this article!

    Starting “should the reactor lose enough coolant” — do you really think that’s what’s happening in this situation? You think this leak is of the reactor’s coolant? That the reactor is slowly leaking coolant and the operators are powerless to remedy this? Over the course of weeks? And they didn’t put the reactor into shutdown to play it safe? I don’t think so. As Rod pointed out, even the consultant to the legislature who worked his best to convince them to shut the plant down doesn’t think that what you’ve described is happening. Why then, did you put that in your article? I’m afraid I must agree with Finrod, that you have deliberately attempted to misinform people.

    The tritium leak, as it is now, has been repeatedly described by public health officials as “not a public health risk”. (Or, as you erroneously put it, a “threat to public health.”) That’s not to say it shouldn’t be fixed, and the NRC has already issued a Demand for Information. They are an independent regulator, I do not know why you think they bend to the will of the nuclear industry. Do you think that you are better positioned as a correspondent for a San Fransisco newspaper to determine whether a nuclear power plant is safe than a commission comprised of engineers with a commitment to safety? Their career would probably over if they made any serious error. Can you imagine if your career was over if you made errors in your writing? This would be it for you. This article here is filled with enough lies and distortions to cast doubt on anything else you’d ever write.

    Moving on. You bring up that the AP-1000 reactors that Vogtle received loan guarantees for are unapproved technology. Actually, Westinghouse did receive design certification for the AP-1000. What is under review currently by the NRC is an amended design of the AP-1000. Once Westinghouse can adequately demonstrate the safety of the amended design then the NRC will certify it. If that doesn’t happen, Vogtle could also build the original AP-1000. AP-1000s are already under construction in China.

    Finally the misinformation by VY employees was determined to be unintentional by an independent investigation.(http://www.entergy.com/News_Room/newsrelease.aspx?NR_ID=169) The employees were referring to “buried pipes”, apparently the legal definition of which is pipes that carry liquid, touch soil, and are part of whole systems. They should have communicated better, as the investigation determined. However, this was not done with malice, as you allege when you use the phrase “attempted coverup”. This investigation was turned over to State Attorney General William Sorrell. So there’s the first bit of evidence in the criminal investigation you talk about. I see that your article was published 25 February, and this press release came on 24 February. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you were indeed trying to produce an accurate story, and this press release I have linked you came out shortly after your deadline to turn in this article of yours.

    Mr. Nichols, you should be ashamed of this article. You blatantly stretch the truth (“attempted coverup” is one example), present things in an obviously biased way(excluding independent investigation’s findings, use of phrase “decaying nuclear reactor” and use of only sources that agree with your viewpoint), and include a number of statements that are flat out wrong (your description of the reactor blowing up is the most egregious example). You do yourself and your newspaper no favor by writing something with such a flamboyant disregard of the truth.

    I briefly scanned Cathy Garger’s article that you put in your Notes section, which had a section about a tritium leak of 2880 picocuries per liter, which she compares to “288 times” the natural tritium [pre-nuclear age] values of 10-30 picocuries per liter. Does she compare that to the EPA’s limit for drinking water? No, of course not, because that would show that the EPA deems such an amount to be safe to drink!

    Reply
  4. D

    This article is absurd fear-mongering.

    First, the engineers were asked if there were pipes carrying radioactive fluids. They said “No, there are no underground pipes carrying radioactive fluids”. Fluids = LIQUIDS.

    The pipes the tritium emerged from are pipes carrying non-condensible gasses and air. Emphasis on GASES.

    You have to understand that engineers answer the questions they are asked. Especially if someone is being adversarial with them, they sometimes will not volunteer more than just the facts. But the facts are all that is required of them.

    BTW: Wind hasn’t solved the old “no wind problem”, and solar hasn’t solved the “nighttime problem” yet. So, BOTTOM LINE: If you close Vermont Yankee, you replace it with COAL. Coal power kills 25,000 Americans a year through lung disease, and causes 40,000 American heart attacks a year.

    Reply
  5. Wes

    An amazing article! I wonder if the concept of knowledgeable review prior to publishing was ever considered?

    I was intrigued by the line “approve the reactor applications for unapproved reactor designs”. What other status can there be for a reactor design (or anything else for that matter) before it is approved? By definition, something that has not yet been approved would have to be categorized as unapproved. But, that is minor compared to so many of the other statements in the article.

    Oh well, I can only hope this kind of journalism will some day cease. To have any sort of reponsible debate over energy policy and the environment, regardless of where you stand, you need to start with some reasonable standard of accuracy in the information being disseminated.

    Reply
  6. Ashley

    Why hasn’t the public officals been determining alternatives for the people? They’ve seen this happening for how long now, but they’ve been too preoccupied with making more money that they haven’t faced the facts to realize that we HAVE TO DO SOMETHING…. People can’t just sit and watch things like this happen, ACTION needs to be taken in order to fix this mistake call VT Yankee.

    Reply
  7. Linda Gunter

    It might have been sensible to have fact-checked with Beyond Nuclear first before repeating the erroneous bad-mouthing launched at us by Cathy Garger (and to which we replied privately). Beyond Nuclear has worked tirelessly and for years to successfully expose the cover-up surrounding the national epidemic of leaks including the massive one at Braidwood, IL that went on for ten years. We have been integral to this fight, are about to publish the definitive report on it, quoted for years on this in the press and so on. Garger’s attempt to claim the credit was sad and wrong. You should have checked, not taken her word as gospel.

    Reply
  8. Terri Lynn Sullivan

    The fear-mongering people are the ones scaring people about the “loss of jobs and tax revenues”, not the people aware enough to understand why there is no compelling reason for the U.S., the world for that matter, to have any nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy is not safe, and not clean. We have all lost jobs before, that is what a resume is for. Transfer skills into doing something positive for society. Even loosing ones house, income and all assets not as devestating as a life of loved one. roll with the punches. Remember Chernobyl? that tragedy was due to same thing….negligence. Even nuke plants running effienctly within regulations are not safe, never mind VT Yankee, and NY plant both failing with tritium leaks and radioactive materials leaching into Hudson respectively. Tritium is a highly suspected cancer causer, and seeing that childhood cancers in that VT county (Windham)have risen 37% (cancer clusters in area overall 10% higher than Vermont State average) Have you ever seen the pictures of the innocent babies that were stillborn with massive radiation exposure near Chernobyl? If not, google it. And consider this fact as you look at those pictures: The VT Yankee plant alone contains 8x the the amount of radiation released in Chernobyl accident. It there were an explosion with all this leakage, there would be no way the millions of people within range could be evac’d safety, much less the continuous exposure to readiation that all the nearby college students would get. Fear-mongering? NOT! this is a reality check. But of course, I may be preaching to rednecks that still think the bomb the US. decided to drop on Hiroshima killing millions of innocents was justified, or any or our wars for that matter. Nuke Power, coal, oil, nuke weapons, war in general all respresent dirty energy and negative energy all around. Oh, and about Chernobyl, apart from the 30 people that died at that site, the contiuous radiation could be felt for a long long time around the world.(maybe still and that was 86) Less than 10% of all cancer is hereditary, and even with nny predetermined gene mutation, people with gene mutation that are not exposed to such radiation are far less likely to get cancer than those with. Cancer and birth defects for profit is not cool.

    Reply
  9. Mick

    What idiot wrote this article? Vermont Yankee is, like the rest of US power plants, incredibly safe. This tritium "leak" is so utterly meaningless that, even if you went on site, and drank water out of the test wells, you'd get less of a radioactive dose than you would by eating the same amount of bananas (which naturally contain small amounts of radioactive K-40). Even if the plant operators did NOTHING to clean this up, by the time this water eventually migrated into area groundwater, it would be a dose many billions of times smaller than that. Yet a few ignorant anti-science types are still afraid of it? They would have been the ones who, 125 years ago, were fighting the introduction of the automobile as well.

    Oh, and to the even larger idiot who posted earlier, the bomb on Hiroshima did not kill "millions". In fact, we killed far more civilians in Japan through the firebombing of Tokyo (conventional bombs only) than we did with the nuke on Hiroshima.

    Reply
    1. max

      Wow Mick you have no idea what you are talking about the tritium they store is more reactive than the water in the reactor core, because they boil off the water to get only pure nuclear waste.

      If you aren't an engineer then you should have no say how safe something is.

      Reply
      1. CM of Vermont

        WOW…. YOU are the one who has absolutly NO idea what you are talking about. In only one sentance you have proven yourself to have even less of a clue than the fool that wrote this article.

        Next time you want to babble about things you know nothing about, take the time to do a little reasearch. I work at nuclear power plant around the country and my job is protecting people like you that don't know any better and I can tell you the Mick was pretty much spot on in his comment.

        FTI… I live about 30 min from VY, have worked there more than once and sleep well at night. This article is filled with the typical exagerations and untruths that are common in anti-nuclear media. But because it's "The News" the uninformed like you swallow it hole without a 2nd thought.

        Reply
  10. Neil Paynter

    Great article! Thanks for posting it. Take it as a compliment that the pro-nuke trolls descended upon you! This story is especially relevant now in light of the Fukushima disaster. All nuclear power plants everywhere must be decommissioned ASAP before another Chernobyl or Fukushima disaster happens. Any reactor at all (no matter how careful those self-congratulatory engineers might have fancied themselves) has the power to lay waste to a huge swath of the World.

    Reply

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